Is It the Music or the Massage?
By Sally James
Studies consider why alternative therapies such as massage, yoga, and acupuncture work.
There you are, lying on a massage table as the strong fingers of a professional massage therapist work out the kinks and knots in your back. Soothing music plays in the background, and the calming fragrance of lavender perfumes the air. An hour later, you sit up — and you're convinced that your sore back feels a lot better.
But what made it feel better? The massage? Talking to the massage therapist? The lavender scent? The quiet music? Or how these things combined to relax you?
As interest in alternative therapies such as massage, yoga, and acupuncture grows, scientists are designing studies to answer questions like these — and test the effectiveness of these therapies. Among the researchers are Dan Cherkin, PhD, and Karen Sherman, PhD, MPH, with Group Health Research Institute. They study complementary and alternative medicine, which includes massage and acupuncture. Their studies have found that massage, acupuncture, and yoga may help some conditions, such as low back pain and anxiety. What's less clear is how or why these therapies work.
One of their recent studies demonstrated that people with anxiety disorders were less anxious following a series of massage treatments, but that similar benefits occurred from lying on a massage table with warm towels and pillows, or from listening to relaxing music — without any accompanying massage. Sherman explains that this result does not discount a benefit from the massage; it just shows there is also benefit from asking people to relax on their own.
"It is hard to separate the touch from the environment," she explains, but that's what researchers are attempting to do. In this case, patients who received any style of therapy in the study were getting more than one sensory input: music and soft light, and some also got either warm towels or the touch of the massage therapist.
Teasing out the answers. Cherkin points out that surroundings can also affect how patients perceive and respond to more traditional medical treatments, such as a drug. But while drug trials can compare the real drug with a placebo, no identical comparison groups are available for studies of physical therapies such as massage. Even so, Sherman and Cherkin are finding ways to overcome these challenges. For instance, in a recent study on back pain, they compared the results of acupuncture therapy — with slender needles inserted into specific body locations — to simulated acupuncture therapy where the skin was touched but not penetrated. Patients in both groups reported less low-back pain.
"It has become clear that there is no one therapy that works for everybody with back pain," Cherkin says. The public often wants a simple yes or no, when the truth is that different therapies work for different people at different times, he says. "Through research, we're trying to identify which approaches provide the most value to the most people and under what circumstances."