Massage therapy and placebo – what’s the connection?
Officially massage therapists, at least in the US and in several European countries, cannot claim that massage therapy heals anything.
However most of us who have been in this profession for a while have seen with our own eyes that our clients can and do get better, sometimes dramatically so.
This does not happen all the time which is not too surprising since there is not a single healing or medical modality that has a 100% success rate.
For the purposes of this article I will use the word ‘healing’ across the board for all therapeutic systems, from the jungle shaman to the heart surgeon.
How to define ‘healing’
What I mean with ‘healing’ is a substantial improvement of a condition. There is no 100% healing – the human condition is terminal for all of us, and all bodies are slowly breaking down over our life time.
Defining ‘healing’ as an absence of physical symptoms neglects the fact that we are more than physical machines.
We have minds, emotions, feelings, passions, opinions, attractions and aversions, good and bad habits, and constructive or destructive thought patterns.
We live in environments which can be helpful or destructive to our well-being, and we ingest food which supports or destroys our health. So we can safely rule out any kind of absolute definition for ‘healing’.
Clearly no massage therapist can claim to achieve a complete cure. But healing, defined as a substantial improvement of a condition, is definitely within our reach.
What accounts for such healing? What causes it? What is the mechanism?
Healing and the placebo effect in massage therapy
In our drug obsessed world, many people assume that any change in the body has to be caused by a chemical agent, a pill which alters the functioning of our body in some way. How can pressing on a muscle, just touching someone, result in any kind of healing?
Let’s stay on the scientific side for now. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate very convincingly that it is not just the pills by themselves that cause an improvement – a major factor is our belief that the pills will cause an improvement.
This is called the “placebo effect“. If you give one group of people the real pills, and you give another group fake pills, in many cases both groups will show a similar effect, as long as they believe that the pills will help them.
This does not only work with pills, it can even work with operations. In one case a patient underwent a knee operation. The surgeon cut the knee open and sewed it back together, but did not change anything in the knee. The patient reported substantial improvement in the condition, although there had been no real surgery.
It is not only possible, but desirable that our clients imagine that our touch and our manipulations will improve their condition. There are statistics that a high percentage of patients who visit a doctor get better just by seeing him or her.
Why? Because that is what they expect to happen. The same thing can and should happen with our massage clients.
Is the placebo effect fake or real?
Now the question is: Should the healing which resulted from taking the fake pills or fake operations be written off as fake, as a trick? Or should we accept that healing is always good, no matter how it came about?
We know that placebo results can sometimes be almost as good as ‘real’ results. We also know that if you tell the placebo patient that he had only taken a sugar pill, the symptoms will come right back.
But it works both ways. We also know that if you tell a patient who took the real pill that he actually only took a sugar pill, the symptoms will come right back as well.
All this has been tested many times. There is no question that the mind plays an important role in the healing process.
In regards to the placebo effect the argument goes that you have to tell the patient that the pill was not real, since the effect might not last and then you can get sued for malpractice.
To be balanced we have to acknowledge that the effect of the real pill might not last either, or it might not work at all. There might even be dangerous side effects, especially with long term usage.
Two ways to get results in massage therapy
So is the placebo effect inferior to the ‘real’ therapy? Or is getting results the only thing that matters? Let’s translate this into our massage therapy practice.
When we work on a client, there are two ways to produce results. One is a scientifically measurable result, like improved circulation, better lymph flow, or increased production of certain chemicals in the body, etc.
The second result is not as easily measurable and is not part of the scientific realm. It comes from factors such as the following:
- The trust of the patient in you
- Your ability to communicate effectively with the client
- The willingness of the client to get better
- Your ability to connect with the client on an emotional and energetic level
- The quality of your touch (which is not the same as your knowledge of the techniques)
- Your ability to move energy in your clients
Some of these factors might well induce a kind of placebo effect. In other words the client might experience a degree of healing or improvement which goes beyond the effect that your massage could generate.
This can range from a substantial improvement to miraculous and unexplainable results.
Redefining the placebo effect in a positive way
At this point we need to redefine the term ‘placebo effect’. Should you go up to your client and say: “Hey, in the interest of science and transparency I should tell you that your amazing improvement is probably a result of your mind, or your imagination, a mere placebo effect. Your symptoms will probably come back again.”
This would clearly be counterproductive and cruel to say the least. However if you stop equating the placebo effect with “fake”, and redefine it as as “constructive engagement of the client’s mind to aid in the healing process“, then you are dealing with an essential tool to produce results in your massage therapy sessions.
The difference between scientific placebo studies and massage therapy placebo effects is this: In scientific studies the subjects do not know that they are taking a sugar pill. However in your massage practice you can elevate the placebo effect to a conscious process.
Using the power of the mind in massage therapy
On the client’s side you can educate the client about working with you in a constructive way. When I have clients with serious issues, I often get them involved in the session by having them direct their breath and their intentions to a trouble spot.
I help them become aware of their restricting patterns and in some cases even guide them in a visualization process to accelerate healing.
“Placebo effect” could be just as easily redefined as a way to engage the immense power of our minds to affect change, improvement and healing.
Instead of using the placebo effect in a clandestine way, you can use it in a conscious, constructive way to get better results in your massage practice and accelerate the healing process in your clients.
You can be proud of the ‘placebo power’ of our minds
Instead of writing off the placebo effect as a way to trick our belief system, we can use it to engage our client’s mind in a constructive way and accelerate healing significantly. I have read comments by sceptics who proclaim that good results in massage therapy are just a placebo effect.
They are not “just” a placebo effect. By introducing the power of the mind, of suggestion, of positive expectation, of focused energy and a conducive environment into your work, your results will dramatically improve.
It can be a very useful part of our job to help our clients make the power of their minds work for them, not against them.
We should be proud of the “placebo” effect, not ashamed of it. If you succeed in engaging a massage client’s subconscious to aid the healing process, what could be wrong with that?
If you don’t use those methods and only use a clinical approach in a clinical environment, you are withholding a lot of healing potential from your clients.
The power of the mind in your massage profession
This is not something that only a few talented healers are gifted with. It is a learnable skill that you can acquire with practice.
Thai Healing Massage Academy has produced many massage video training courses which are based on the principle that massage therapy can be much more than just the manipulation of someone’s anatomy.
If the placebo effect can get results almost as good as the actual therapy, imagine what the conscious application of this scientifically documented principle can do.
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