I’ve been thinking a lot about research lately. Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I used to think about research and how, lately, I seem to do so less and less.
I was a psychology major in college and, as such, had to read lots of research and execute a few studies. Quantitative methods was required for my course, and, as much as I see the place for quantitative research, constructing and executing just one “gold standard” double-blind study in an academic setting with plenty of help and guidance mostly taught me a) that I did not ever want to do it again, and b) that quantitative research is complicated and often imperfect, and as a bonus, it reinforced my belief that many people tend to misread, overgeneralize, and overstate the extent to which studies “prove” things. I do not mean to suggest that it doesn’t matter. Quantitative research matters very much, gives us valuable information and insight into this world of ours, and results in crazy advances for all humankind. I’m just not the girl to carry it out.
Qualitative research, on the other hand? Oh how it makes my heart surge. Qualitative methods was not required for my course, and it was a pretty small class. I understand why. To do it properly requires hours of transcription and coding and analysis, and, at the end, you essentially wind up with a story. It’s a little less sell-able a little less shiny, a little less likely to turn up in the health section of the Times than quantitative studies with control groups and placebos and scientific method set out to measure the effects of one thing on another (unless, of course, there’s either a quantitative element or a large enough study to detect quantifiable patterns). It doesn’t disprove a hypothesis, and thus it is often sidelined, but I think it is pretty important stuff. It provides new ways of listening, new insights into stories. And stories matter. You can’t extrapolate from them the way you can with quantitative research, can’t say that the experience of a handful of people that you have carefully taken down and parsed and come to understand will predict the experience of another, but that doesn’t mean those experiences don’t matter. They do.
The other day, I saw a post from the marvelous Melissa who administrates Anatomy in Motion’s Facebook page (on the off chance you are not already up on it, Anatomy in Motion is a fantastic app she and her husband created, and they post great content on Facebook that yields many interesting discussions). She was dismayed that someone was posting anti-massage sentiments on some of their infographics in a vaguely troll-like fashion. I had plans to leave the house within a few minutes of seeing her post. Because internet drama bests my feeble time management skills time and again, I chose to forego brushing my hair and packing my bag for yoga in favor of scanning the recent posts to see what this guy had to say. What I found was a fairly straightforward post from Anatomy in Motion citing some information about TMJ (it didn’t mention massage as a treatment), and a response from someone declaring that massage does not ever help this ever, and that no study has ever shown that it does. Ever. He used some language that didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t foul-mouthed by any stretch, but he suggested that telling people that massage helps with TMJ dysfunction merely adds to the misinformation that “consumers have to wade through.” I felt a little lumped in with snake oil salesmen. I didn’t like it. I left the house as planned, and when I next looked at the discussion, someone with more time than I (OK, it was Melissa/Anatomy in Motion) had hopped onto PubMed and posted four great quantitative studies demonstrating the effectiveness of massage in treating TMJ dysfunction! Problem solved!
But my wheels had been spinning since I’d left the house. The snake oil association had got me thinking about the way that so many people approach healing, about our reliance on research that we take to be cut and dry, but that rarely is, on the reluctance to trust intuition and give complementary care a fair shake. I appreciate the studies that demonstrate that massage helps people who are suffering from TMJ dysfunction. I look for new research fairly regularly, share it when available, write blog posts promoting new information from time to time. I love that stuff. But I was twelve years old when my jaw first slid out of place and started popping every time I opened my mouth. I’ve had TMJ problems longer than I have not. And, when I pin the clavicular attachment of my SCM and tilt my head to the side, I feel the stretch through my neck, up into my masseter, feel a slow and achy opening in the joint itself. And that matters just as much as any study.
Sometimes, it really can feel like we are wading through information. There is so much we don’t know about the human body. For people who don’t “believe in” or use acupuncture, the meridians and elemental associations sound like mumbo jumbo. For people who don’t know about massage, I imagine talk of trigger points can sound similar. But it’s pretty commonly accepted that massage works on muscles, and muscles act on joints, and it has always made sense to me intuitively, long before I ever had a massage, back when I was just a kid with a cranky, painful jaw, that pressing the muscles could help ease the pain.
When I studied qualitative methods in college, in addition to course work and our main study, we had to submit a reflection paper at the end of the term. I remember vividly hand-drawing a cover (a little juvenile, perhaps, for a college paper, but the word “reflection” was in the assignment, so I guess I kind of went for it). I drew a human form, gingerbread-man-style, arms and legs and head, but empty, and I filled in the body with interlocking puzzle pieces. What I loved about my study, which was entirely interview based, was the idea that, rather than looking at people through the lens of an external hypothesis, I started from an open-ended place and let all data arise from interviews, from the individual. I loved my qualitative methods psych class for the same reason I now love massage: all the answers are within the individual, the pieces fit together always, in a unique and fascinating and way that has something to teach us.
The truth is that much massage research usually relies on both quantitative and qualitative measures, and it legitimizes the field, and it informs techniques, and it is fabulous. My issue is not with research itself, but with people like the man commenting on the TMJ post (and other posts, apparently, that I didn’t catch), who insist that the only effective treatments are those that have been pinned down and scrutinized and documented via quantitative methods. I wish that experience and common sense mattered a little bit more, that feeling a change in a joint, however subtle, was enough to demonstrate effectiveness or, at the very least, to not inspire rage. Massage helps me. It helps my clients. As much as I love research and will continue to use it to try and legitimize the field to nonbelievers, the stories I’ve seen of massage working wonders, however few and however undocumented, are just as important to me.
Megan Spence is a Licensed Massage Therapist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She is continually astonished by just how much she loves her work. You can read more about Megan’s adventures in massage and various other things body-related at Bodywork Brooklyn.