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The Politics Of Massage Therapy: Alternative Treatment or Mainstream Therapy?

By Terry McDermott

I tend to view massage therapy independently of broader categories of therapy, healing or other restorative practices or systems. I am inclined to do this because I am cautious about allowing massage to be classified as a traditional therapy versus an alternative therapy.

There are many practitioners who cringe when they see massage therapy lumped in with "alternative practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic or naturopathic health. To some these smack of quackery, fakery or, in some cases, lunacy. I believe that this aversion to association with alternative medical practices is extreme but I concede that a massage therapy purist could develop such a phobia.

On the other hand, more open-minded massage therapists abhor associating massage exclusively with clinical practices such as physical therapy or other forms of rehabilitation. There is some resentment towards the incorporation of massage therapy into traditional medicine only because they feel that massage may be viewed as simply a procedure. This view strikes me as a bit vindictive but given the historical view of the mainstream medical industry towards the alternative medical community, some bitterness can be expected.

I would hate to see massage go the way of today's politics which attempt to label every political view as either liberal or conservative. Massage therapy is neither traditional nor alternative. Frankly, traditional medicine is, in actuality, an "alternative to massage when viewed in an historical context.

The first documented description of massage as a technique or therapy dates back to 3,000 B.C. in China. The Chinese believed that all illness was due to an imbalance of "Qi within the body. The inequitable distribution of this "life force or "life energy was blamed for all ailments and this philosophy was absorbed and incorporated by Japanese Buddhist monks into Japanese massage techniques. This eventually evolved into the unique Japanese massage therapy called Shiatsu or "finger pressure."

At the same time, similar approaches were evolving in India, eventually becoming the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, or the "arts of life, which also utilized massage as an instrumental healing methodology. Greeks, Romans and even Native Americans highly valued not just the therapeutic, but also the actual healing value of massage. Hippocrates himself is quoted as stating that "anyone wishing to study medicine must master the art of massage."

But with the advent of the industrial age and the development of modern scientific inquiry, massage was relegated to the list of unenlightened, unsophisticated medical practices. In my opinion, however, to dismiss the medicinal and restorative benefits of massage was to dismiss the wisdom of the Ancients. The lack of modern scientific diagnostic techniques and the inability to examine the physical being at the cellular level, forced the earliest physicians to take a macro view of the person since a micro view was unavailable. That macro view and the knowledge garnered through the ages is still the essence of the practice of the ancient art of massage.

That is not to say that the more clinical modern approach to massage is without merit. On the contrary, contemporary research has validated many of the formerly unsubstantiated claims of alternative practitioners. Scientific studies have confirmed the effectiveness of massage in alleviating some depressive symptoms, altering the immune system, controlling pain and reducing stress. As stress is identified as the precipitator of so many medical problems, physicians are less reluctant to recommend massage as part of an overall regime to address certain conditions.

So I echo the plea of Rodney King when he asked, "Can't we all just get along? Massage does not need the blessing of the medical establishment to claim its place among the healing arts, thank you. Nor is it the exclusive therapeutic domain of the alternative community. I am comfortable with claims that massage can benefit the whole person and I welcome the recognition of the scientific examiners who methodically study the benefits of touch for healing. But I intend to plant myself firmly in the middle and surrender to no particular ideology of massage therapy. I endorse massage for what it does.

About The Author

J. Terrence McDermott is the administrator of Massage Schools Guide at, a website offering a variety of resources for prospective massage therapists. He has developed a national directory of massage schools with program highlights and contact information.


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