The “Woo-Woo” Factor: Are Mysticism and Pseudoscience Adversely Impacting the Massage Profession?
I’m concerned. Although I’ve already gone through my first renewal and am also on the faculty of the massage school where I graduated, I still consider myself a “newbie.” What isn’t new for me is a healthy sense of skepticism. As a life-long science geek, classes in physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, pathology — all of the “ologies” — came fairly easy for me. (No small trick, being as old or older than most of my instructors!) The only exception came in the form of an elective: reflexology.
I went in with an open mind, but at the end of the weekend long class, my skeptical faculties kept nagging at me: is there a real scientific basis for this practice? For those unaware, the central idea is that various parts of the feet and hands have some sort of mystical connection between other areas of the body. Work, say, in the arch of the foot and you can affect the digestive tract. To my more strictly scientific sensibilities, this reeked of pseudoscience. That said, I’m also old enough to recall the headlines circa 1967 or so stating how scientists discovered how aspirin works in the body. Until that time, they prescribed it, but they had no clue as to how it worked. There is much that science doesn’t know. Perhaps reflexology is the same? With this in mind, I began digging into it…
There seems to be a sense of politeness and reserve among those in the medical health support field, as outright criticism seems muted, at best. A paper from the Mayo Clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/what-is-reflexology/faq-20058139) states, “reflexology may reduce pain and psychological symptoms, such as stress and anxiety, and enhance relaxation and sleep.” Yet this is what we’re constantly told is true of massage in general. The entry concludes: “Given that reflexology is also low risk, it can be a reasonable option if you’re seeking relaxation and stress relief.” In short, a polite way of saying, “It can’t hurt,” but still no science.
A more promising lead appeared in Massage Magazine (https://www.massagemag.com/science-reflexology-research-86595/), and while generally supportive and containing more than a few thought provoking details, the conclusion states, “not enough peer-review [sic] studies have been published to bring the evidence needed to fully validate the profession.” One such peer-reviewed study, linked in the article, concludes: “…the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition.”
More glaringly, the reference on Quackwatch, a website dedicated to exposing “frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct” (https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/reflex.html) calls it “an absurd theory.” This begs the question: should massage schools be teaching this with a straight face? And does it make other health care professionals take us less seriously?
THE MOUNTAIN OF WOO-WOO
When I was in school, I was often irked by the constant mention of “energy.” We’re told that we have this mysterious “energy” (with many names, such as “chi” or “prana”) that needs “balancing,” or that we can place energy here and there, draw it from the body or sky, and that others can steal it from us! My hands-on teacher spoke of “energy vampires,” who can make her feel drained and exhausted simply by their presence.
My problem with that is that I study physics. I understand that matter and energy are, at their core, the same thing. Like matter, energy has a name. If you say “matter,” someone might ask what type you’re referring to; a metal? A liquid? An inert gas? Is it gold, aluminum or copper? Similarly, energy has a label; there’s electrical energy, thermal energy, electromagnetic energy and so on. The body uses energy, stores it and emits it; our bodies “glow” in the infrared (if you’ve ever seen police shows where they use FLIR cameras to see suspects in the dark, you’ve seen this glow). Our neurons fire using electrical (electrochemical) impulses. Our mitochondria produce an electrochemical energy that is the driving “power plant” of our cells. So I always wanted to know precisely what “energy” was being “balanced”? How does it become focused in a “chakra,” and why hasn’t a chakra ever been located during an autopsy? After all, energy in systems need some sort of waveguide. It travels through your computer, but if you shut it off and open it, you can see the pathways the energy (electricity) travels throughout the system; you can see the places it gathers (capacitors) and the places it’s slowed down/restricted (resistors) and so on. Where are the corresponding structures in the body? How are we supposed to influence said energy?
“Energy can be directed; I’m turning it up, I’m turning it down.” — The Kings from their song, “Switchin’ To Glide”
The idea of chakras is rooted in, but not exclusive to, Buddhism and Hinduism. One discipline claims that there are five chakras in the human body, while the other claims six or seven. This inconsistency, along with the questions previously asked, makes me once again relegate these ideas to the “unlikely” bin. Ancient beliefs are not science, and today’s science does not confirm them.
THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
Two massage modalities top the Mountain of Woo-woo: Reiki and Craniosacral Therapy. In a nutshell, the idea behind Reiki is that the therapist can channel energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate the natural healing processes of the patient’s body and restore physical and emotional well-being. The best that science can say about it is that Reiki performs “better than a placebo” and, once again, “Reiki should be regarded as a complementary therapy that can be implemented alongside all other medical and therapeutic techniques.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871310/) Our go-to website, Quackwatch.com is a bit more straight forward: “Reiki is nonsense.” (https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/reiki.html)
The one modality I was most excited about when I was in school, however, was Craniosacral therapy. I mean, it just plain sounds scientific right from the get-go! In class, we were taught to feel for the “craniosacral pulse” of the spinal fluid by placing hands strategically under each other. Being an older student, I thought I’d felt just about anything another human body could exhibit, so I was delighted to feel lymph movement for the first time in another class! Naturally I was excited to once again feel something new. And feel things I did; I could feel pulse (my fellow student’s and my own), respiration and even sound vibrations when she cleared her throat. Try as I might, however, I could not feel any such pulse. After class, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one.
Other students, however, got very excited! One said she felt the pulse and announced her ability to influence it. She went on to sign up for a very expensive certification program through the Upledger Institute, the main instruction and certifying body for craniosacral therapy in the states. Me, being the skeptic that I am, once again took to the Internet. Quackwatch came right up! Their conclusion: “I do not believe that CST has any therapeutic value. Its underlying theory is false…” Relying on a single website, however, is unwise at best and biased at worst, so I kept digging, my main concern being ‘what do doctors think about it’? One website, painscience.com, is rather merciless, stating that it has “failed to pass every fair scientific test of efficacy or plausibility. (https://www.painscience.com/articles/craniosacral-therapy.php) The U.S. National Library of Medicine calls it, at best, “a placebo.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1564028/)
THE QUEST FOR CREDIBILITY
Our industry has faced, and IS facing, an uphill climb. With “massage parlor madams” being in recent political news, companies being exposed as fronts for human sex trafficking, still other companies covering up sexual impropriety, it’s little wonder that some people look at LMTs, RMTs and CMTs as “not a real job.” My state of Michigan, along with many other states, recently placed massage therapy under the blanket of medical support professions, sometimes also referred to as “complimentary health services.” This means that we ARE making progress. Yet not all states do. Nevada, for instance, considered massage “adult entertainment” until they formed their regulatory board in 2005. Hopefully the rest will follow suit. Yet, regardless of the skill level or therapeutic training of practitioners, what must happen above all else is to purge our industry of pseudoscientific and irrational claims. There is solid science behind massage therapy in general, and its positive impact on health and well-being are irrefutable. We open ourselves to disrespect, marginalization and valid criticism, however, when we introduce superstition and mysticism into the mix. Yes, there is much that science still doesn’t know. Yes, we must forge ahead to fill in those blanks. In the meantime, however, we need to be cognizant of public perception and work towards the two main goals of the massage industry: the health and well-being of our clients and our own part in promoting respect and credibility of the massage profession.