Current Divides within the Field of Massage Therapy

Over the past fifteen years of working as a massage therapist, I have witnessed a growing problem as the medical field has started to accept massage as a legitimate treatment. The divide between "clinical" therapists and those of us who incorporate spiritually based philosophies is growing. As I have recently become more active on social media, I see how this divide is turning ugly. This saddens me because massage therapists should all have a basic appreciation that humanity is filled with many diverse systems of belief.

This problem first started when the Commission on Massage Therapy Association (started in 1989) was created to establish educational standards in the field. Although this step was invaluable to the progression of our profession, at no time did they mandate schools to distinguish between evidence-based clinical massage and massage that is based on various spiritual philosophies (such as meridians or energy-based techniques). Both of these categories of bodywork were often integrated together in the classroom.

To compound this problem, the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork approved continuing education courses indiscriminately throughout the years. Professional massage therapists could take courses as diverse as crystal chakra healing, dialogue methods based on shamanism, and reiki energy work in order to meet their licensing requirements.

As a psychology major with a minor in anthropology, I have always been fascinated by diverse perspectives of health and healing from cultures around the world. I truly believe we all need a little magical thinking in our daily life. It is what the modern world is missing.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jeanne Achterberg's book, Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine (page 32).

" is not the tools [symbols] and rituals that heal, it is the power endowed in them by the imagination."

I have been faced with the dilemma of discontinuing the use of "energy work" and other practices that are deemed "pseudoscience" after rejection from insurance provider lists for several years now. In order to meet practice standards, they required that I no longer be associated in any way with energy-based massage techniques. Though I was tempted to comply, my heart knows that is not the right thing to do. The psychology of healing proves that there is a need for more than just science-based therapies.

I once had a client in the final stages of terminal cancer who traveled to Hawaii on vacation. I was able to do Reiki and Therapeutic Touch (energy work) when his level of pain prevented even the gentlest of massage. We both had tears in our eyes when he told me his massage session was the first time he could remember not feeling any pain.  He came back three times over the course of the week, and I hope the experience helped make his final hours more bearable.

To all of you skeptical massage therapists out there, I understand your frustration at wanting to achieve status as health-care providers in the medical field, and I understand how association with pseudo-scientific methods is getting in the way. Perhaps there is a better way to go about making changes in the field of massage. Perhaps we should make a distinction between massage that is based on scientifically proven theories and massage that is based on the psychology of healing without unjust ridicule. These different categories of therapy are both legitimate in their own unique way.

For all of you holistically based massage therapists out there, I urge you to make a distinction between the types of bodywork that you offer. If you want to become established within the medical community, you should be able to explain the scientific or psychological basis on which your techniques operate in a way that would satisfy both a skeptic and an enthusiast. You might even want to think about establishing a separate identity for both your clinical massage practice and your spiritually based massage practice as the field of massage continues to evolve and this divide intensifies.

Thank you for reading my thoughts... let me know what you think.  I know that this is a hot topic, and I look forward to your opinions.

Sonia Beauchamp, LMT
Board Certified Massage Therapist