Most people will agree that massage is enjoyable, can relax sore muscles and make you feel both emotionally happier and calmer, but very few people claim that massage can ‘stimulate the immune system,’ ‘detox the body’ or produce ‘healing energy’. Of the scientific studies that have been carried out on massage, none have found conclusive evidence of any physical health benefits other than increasing the levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) and providing some psychological benefits, which can lead to a reduction in pain, as this often has a psychological basis. The diagram above is slightly misleading in it's positive claims for massage, as it does not make a distinction of what kind of pain is being reduced by the massage therapy. However, a newly published scientific article1 on massage therapy aims to investigate the direct physical benefits of massage therapy, studying its effects on relieving muscle damage caused by exercise, and claims massage can increase muscle recovery by stimulating mitochondrial growth.
At first it appears like an interesting article that probably over states the significance of the results, but upon further reading of the paper it becomes evident that overstating results was not the biggest flaw of this study; it was the ethics of the study. It is completely baffling how this study obtained ethical approval, because it is investigating an alternative medicine by using extreme invasive procedures on its healthy volunteers.
It used muscle biopsies, which is a surgical procedure involving making an incision and removing a piece of muscle. This is far more invasive than a needle biopsy, and seems an extreme procedure in this case. The main problem I have with this study is not the procedure itself, but the fact that it is being used to investigate massage therapy, where very little potential benefit could be achieved for medicine. The study carried out these procedures based on a theory, and did not even include animal models to check if there was any grounding in their theory before scaling up in to human studies.
Ethical approval is dependent on the cost-benefit of the study, and unfortunately nothing revolutionary is likely to come from massage therapy; as humans have been carrying out basic forms of massage for hundreds of years, and if there was some dramatic benefit we would have already discovered it. So why are we subjecting healthy volunteers to invasive surgical procedures, where nothing significantly valuable could be gained? Ethical committees require more pressure to thoroughly investigate medical and research studies, questioning them in more detail to assess the cost-benefit before allowing the research to be carried out, because without regulatory bodies healthy volunteers would undergo unnecessary and often painful procedures as part of a wild goose chase, which could easily be avoided by a more thorough review process. Essentially this would protect the volunteers, which are at the heart of research, without them no new drug or treatment would be developed. Volunteers should be treated with respect and not subject to unnecessary invasive procedures which have no value.
E Markham (2012). Miracle Massage Blogspot