Christopher A. Moyer, PhD (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), a counseling psychologist on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, is one of the leading researchers and authors in the massage and bodywork professions.
In 2004, Dr. Moyer and colleagues published in Psychological Bulletin the very first meta-analysis conducted in the CAM field of massage therapy.
Dr. Moyer has recently edited (with Trish Dryden) a book titled Massage Therapy: Integrating Research and Practice. He is currently serving as the Research Section Editor of the peer-reviewed, open access International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.
Dr. Moyer was recently nominated for the 2011 American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions to Psychology.
Here is our interview with
MASSAGE RESEARCH SCIENTIST
JMS: How did you get into the field of massage therapy science and education?
Dr. Moyer: There were a couple of different parts of my life that worked together to bring this about. The first is that I used to be very involved in competitive cycling, and in that sport there is a long tradition of using massage as an aid to training and recovery. This encouraged me to try massage, and during my most active and competitive years I was often receiving massage weekly. This gave me a lot of opportunity to experience it, and also to think about its benefits and how it might be working.
Around this same time I was developing an interest in studying psychology, which I did in college and in graduate school. When it came time for me to design and implement research projects, I thought it would be interesting to study the effects of massage. My first efforts, as a sophomore in college, were very basic, but they were also fun and interesting, and the results suggested that this was something worth studying.
Also around this time is when the Touch Research Institute began to publish the bulk of their research. I remember one of my professors directing me to Tiffany Field’s 1998 research review in American Psychologist, and I remember being excited that massage therapy research was starting to appear in some psychology journals. I also remember thinking that there were important gaps in the massage therapy research that needed to be addressed, which is always the case in any new and evolving area. When I sent my applications in to Ph.D. programs, I included a theory paper I had written that outlined the parallels between massage therapy and psychotherapy. That paper made a good impression on some of the professors I eventually trained under and worked with at University of Illinois.
So, it was a confluence of factors that led me to do massage therapy research. My athletic participation, my early research experiences, the emergence of the Touch Research Institute’s studies, and the flexibility and open-mindedness of Drs. Hannum and Rounds at University of Illinois all worked together to lead to this.
JMS: What motivated you to conduct the very first meta-analytic study on massage therapy intervention?
Dr. Moyer: One of my first courses in graduate school introduced us to a range of study designs, one of which was meta-analysis. In a meta-analysis, the persons conducting the study do not collect new data; rather, they collect all of the data that is already published on a subject, use objective and systematic procedures to determine which sources are of sufficiently high quality, and then statistically combine the results of those high-quality studies to quantify and summarize what is currently known.
Dr. Rounds assigned us some homework that required us to track down the data from an existing meta-analysis, and I remember that I did not like it. But very soon after that my attitude changed, as I began to see that meta-analysis was a very useful research method, and that it had the potential to put what is known, and even what is not known, into context. And, as I was getting increasingly familiar with the existing massage therapy research, I was aware that no one had performed a meta-analysis that assessed the effects of massage therapy on anxiety, depression, stress hormones, and several other important outcomes. When I mentioned that I was considering doing one for my master’s thesis, Dr. Rounds casually said that such a project might be publishable in a high-impact psychology journal such as Psychological Bulletin. He did not know this at the time, but his saying that was very motivating to me, and I made that my goal. It was quite a while later, but that is where we eventually published that study.
I am very proud of that work. It is not perfect, of course, but I think it did make an important contribution, and many other researchers have now been able to use it as a way of establishing certain facts about massage therapy.
JMS: What is your assessment of the current state of massage therapy research?
Dr. Moyer: While there is quite a bit more research now than there was just a few years ago, the total amount is still small and the quality of that research is highly variable. But it will continue to grow, and to improve. The terrific thing about science is that it is inherently self-correcting; when a researcher publishes a study that is poorly done, or posits a faulty theory, it is only a matter of time before some other researcher comes along and challenges it with better evidence. We can expect both the quality and the quantity of massage therapy research to grow quickly in the years to come, which is exciting.
JMS: As a counseling psychologist and one of the leading massage therapy researchers, what similarities do you see between psychotherapy and MT intervention?
Dr. Moyer: There are probably too many to list here, but a key one, I think, is that both are likely to work much better – or maybe only work – when there is a certain kind of trusting therapeutic relationship between the recipient of the therapy and the therapist. The recipient has to be willing to be vulnerable, and to experience new sensations, including ones that might not be immediately comfortable or pleasant. At the same time, the therapist has to be attuned to the recipient, and adjust his or her approach to match the recipient’s current state and readiness for therapy.
JMS: What do you see as the most important work currently needing to be done to place the massage therapy profession on a more scientific basis?
Dr. Moyer: This is a difficult question. Further, I am not sure I am in the best position to answer it. I myself am not a massage therapist, and so I do not have the perspective that one gets from being inside the profession. There are also leaders in the profession who have been thinking about this for much longer than I have been researching massage therapy.
Having said that, and if you still want my opinion, I think efforts such as this Journal, the Massage Therapy Foundation‘s International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (IJTMB), and the establishment of case study competitions that encourage students and practitioners to connect with the research process and to add to the pool of scientific information on massage therapy, are all steps in the right direction.
There is also a lot of pseudoscience that gets associated with massage therapy, and I think that is a shame. Massage therapy is a genuine therapeutic practice with scientifically demonstrated results; it does not benefit at all from being lumped together with nonsensical practices such as ‘energy work’ and the like, and I think it needs to leave such things behind. I have had some lively conversations with people in the profession who disagree with me, but I have also connected with many people in the profession who share my opinion on this.
JMS: What recommendations do you have for massage practitioners interested in integrating massage research into their daily practice?
Dr. Moyer: Devote a little bit of time to keeping up with it. Read this Journal, read IJTMB, and think about the information. It does not have to be a lot of time; a few minutes here and there can really start to add up. Further, understand that research is not always the easiest thing to read when you are starting out, and do not let that worry you or get you bogged down. If something is difficult to read or to understand because it is very technical, or because it describes research methodology or statistics you are not yet familiar with, don’t give up – just go over that part more quickly and take whatever you can from the article. It is better to do this than it is to get frustrated or to give up. Even with my own research training, sometimes when I am reading in a new area I still use this approach, because I know the more I am exposed to new information that I do not yet understand, the closer I am getting to the point where I will eventually understand it. Often it is better to read something briskly a couple of times than it is to plod through it a single time.
There are also several good books on the market for learning the basics about massage therapy research and similar areas of research. Buy one, or see if your library can get a copy.
My colleague Trish Dryden and I have recently completed major editing work on just such a book, which should be released at the end of this year. The working title is Massage Therapy: Integrating Research & Practice and it will be published by Human Kinetics. We were able to get more than twenty of the leading people in massage therapy research, education, and practice to contribute chapters. I hope our text will be a valuable resource for practitioners with an interest in the research.
JMS: Do you use bodywork for your own health and if so, what type of bodywork is your favorite?
Dr. Moyer: At many times in my life I have scheduled regular massages. Currently, it has been a while since I have done this, but I expect to get back in the habit soon, and I miss it. I have received several different types of massage therapy over the years, but to be honest I do not worry about that or pay too much attention to the names and variations of specific massage modalities; rather, I try to connect with the best massage therapists in my area and go from there. That approach has worked well.
Category: Person of the Month