The Evolution of Massage
Hands-On Healing Power Gains Momentum
The ancient healing practice of massage therapy is playing an important role today in the emerging golden age of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Surprisingly, it remains comparatively underrepresented in U.S. medical school curricula, while Massage Today reports that “Insurance reimbursement for massage therapy is at an all-time high.”
From the time that Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, introduced the idea that a physician should be experienced in rubbing, massage therapy has moved in and out of the traditional medical models of various cultures. Current practitioners attribute its staying power to continued awareness of the inherent healing and therapeutic value of massage, now the leading form of bodywork in the United States, according to the American Massage Association.
Kneading, tapping and stroking, the common ancestors of the 100-plus techniques used by today’s massage therapists, have survived two evolutionary spirals, but acceptance of massage as a prominent healing tool has not followed an uninterrupted ascent.
Starting in 1800 B.C., when East Indian ayurvedic massage techniques were used to maintain mental health and prevent disease, the development of related healing modalities, such as Reiki, acupressure, Shiatsu, Canadian deep muscle massage, lomilomi and Swedish massage, generally gained in acceptance. When, in 1884, skeptical British physicians alleged that its practitioners were stealing patients, the Incorporated Society of Trained Masseuses formed to legitimize their approach. They set about creating regulations and establishing a clear practice model for physical rehabilitation; today the organization exists as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Many of the techniques used by its members still reflect treatment practices invented prior to the society’s inception.
Since the 1970s, renewed interest in hands-on methods of manipulating muscles and other soft tissues has propelled the therapeutic use of touch into its latest upward growth spiral, freeing it from the gravitational pull of another bout of opposition from mainstream medicine in the early 1930s. Now on an accelerated course, massage again has the opportunity to assume a celebrated place in the annals of medicine, just as it did in 1936, when Dr. Thomas Lathrop Stedman included it as a “scientific method” among therapeutics in his Practical Medical Dictionary.
In recent years, Tony Hansen, owner of Therapy on the Gulf, in Naples, Florida, has noticed a change in his clients’ expectations. “When I began practicing this service in 2000, people just wanted to feel relaxed. Now, they are more interested in massage as a means to provide relief for their physical problems,” says Hansen.
Like many of the estimated 265,000 to 300,000 licensed massage therapists in this country, Hansen’s expertise includes other modalities that he has studied since graduating from massage school. He is pleased that today much of his work comes through referrals from enlightened physicians and chiropractors. “A small number of local physicians understand that the manipulation of connective tissue in myofascial release therapy, or any of the other 12 modalities I practice, can not only promote healing, mobility and flexibility, but also complement what they do,” enthuses Hansen.
Christina Mitchell, owner of Best Body Massage, also in Naples, specializes in medical massage for cancer patients, orthopedic assessment, sports massage and active isolated stretching. A graduate of the Baltimore School of Massage, Mitchell acquired her specialty training for medical patients at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “Ninety-nine percent of my clients come for therapeutic reasons,” she remarks.
While more research is needed to support specific health benefits of massage, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) continues to sponsor studies. The effort is to determine if and how the changes that occur in the body during massage influence health, and to identify the conditions for which massage may be most helpful.
Unwilling to wait for such statistical evidence, ever-growing numbers of American adults—18 million per a 2007 NCCAM study—have chosen to make use of massage. Their testimonials regularly attest to its therapeutic benefits and recognize its worth as an aid to general wellness—a positive sign that the current positive trend will continue.