I love to join in on the debunking of some alternative medicine practices. But I never thought twice about getting therapeutic massage. It’s worked wonders for my tense back, and feels oh so amazing.
I never wondered until now, is massage alternative medicine, or a valid therapy? Is it actually doing something beneficial for my back muscles, or do I just like relaxing and being pet like a cat for a while?
(My definition of massage being the sports-therapy type, of course, not the lady at my hairdresser’s who charges people to place crystals all over their back while she chants and rubs oil on them. I know, she sounds much more exciting.)
From a strictly scientific point of view, if it hasn’t been subjected to rigorous scientific study it is technically “alternative medicine”. This usually implies a double blind/placebo controlled study although sometimes for reasons of ethics and cost we may have to settle for prospective or retrospective unblinded, non-placebo studies. Even by that standard a number of conventional medical therapies would not meet the criteria ( Few people would volunteer for a double blind placebo controlled trial of appendectomies) simply because they have been around for so long and the benefits are so obvious that such studies will never be done.
Massage is a difficult ‘treatment’ to study scientifically for several reasons. It’s hard to do a placebo controlled study since the placebo subjects would know they weren’t getting a massage. In addition, contact between two humans clearly affects us emotionally and physically. How do you separate that effect from the effect you are looking for. In other words, did the massage really do anything to improve the underlying back problem or do you just notice the pain less because the massage feels so good?
As a physician I prefer treatments that are based on science and have proven benefit and safety, but in the case of something like a massage, if you feel better I see little harm in using this therapy. To answer your question, strictly speaking this is a type of alternative medicine.