How Do You Get Involved in Research?

By Jerrilyn Cambron
[Somatic Research]

As a research professor, one of the most common questions I get from massage therapists is “How do I get involved in research?” That is a difficult question to answer without knowing a bit more about the individual and his or her ultimate goals. Getting involved in research can take many forms—from minor involvement to a full-scale career change. But even a small amount of involvement can make a big impact on the future of the massage profession.  

Write a Case Report
The first step for any practicing massage therapist who wants to get involved in research is to write a case report for publication in a scientific journal. A case report documents a practitioner’s experiences, thoughts, or observations related to the care of a single client. For example, in one recently published case report, a massage therapist described her treatment of a 47-year-old female who sought massage therapy for pain and dysfunction after spinal decompression and fusion surgery.1 This was an interesting and informative report that demonstrated the benefits of massage therapy for this condition.

The most common type of case report is a description of care rendered for a common condition. But there are many types of case reports that can be written by a massage therapist. Other reports might address treatment of a rare condition, new or unique massage treatments, unexpected complications during treatment, or unexpected positive or negative outcomes for one condition when treating another.

A single case report such as the one described can have a great impact on the literature base. Case reports that are published in scientific journals show up in research databases like PubMed, just like all other research articles. Even though other therapists know massage may be beneficial for such a condition, it is important for massage therapists to share experiences with each other, and a case report will educate other health-care professionals regarding massage therapy as a possible intervention.

The impact will be even greater if no previous articles have been published on the topic. Even though a single case report is weak evidence, it is still evidence. Along with being an educational tool for other health-care providers, it might be the impetus for researchers to develop larger studies on a topic. Most researchers are not in clinical practice, so they don’t see the successes you do. However, reading the literature is a big part of the researcher’s job. A case report might provide a rationale for further investigation. Researchers frequently use preliminary evidence when submitting grant applications, and a published case may act as the springboard toward higher levels of evidence.

Even though case reports can be very positive additions to the literature, we also need to be aware of their limitations.

First, we cannot apply the findings of a case report to a larger population. In other words, we cannot assume that just because one client’s condition improved as a result of massage therapy, all future clients who receive the same treatment will also improve.

Second, case reports do not identify cause and effect relationships between massage interventions and outcomes. Treating a client using a certain massage technique doesn’t necessarily mean the client improved as a direct result of that technique; he may have improved due to the natural history of the condition.

Finally, case reports do not provide strong evidence compared to other research methods. We cannot claim that the evidence of a case report carries the same weight as the evidence from a randomized clinical trial.

Writing Your First Case Report
Try to get as much information as you can before you start. There is a very helpful webinar series on writing case reports, developed by Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals and the Massage Therapy Foundation, that includes an overview on getting started, what to write in the introduction and discussion sections, how to report your client’s case, and more. The series can be viewed free at
As an added incentive, the Massage Therapy Foundation has two case report contests annually: one is for students (due June 2, 2014) and one is for practitioners (due October 1, 2014). Cash prizes are awarded, contingent on the winners publishing their case reports. Learn more at www.massage

Join a Practice-Based Research Network
A second way to get involved, especially good for therapists who don’t have the time or experience to develop their own research, is to join a practice-based research network (PBRN). The researchers set up the study, approach practitioners who are members of the network, and work with those who agree to participate.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a PBRN is “a group of practices devoted principally to the care of patients but also affiliated for the purpose of examining the health-care process that occurs in practices. They provide a ‘laboratory’ for studying broad populations of patients and care providers in community-based settings.”

In the massage therapy profession, there is a growing PBRN called MassageNet (www.massage that was started in 2009. Currently, it has more than 800 therapist members from 46 states and 17 countries. The purpose of this PBRN is to develop research studies that involve massage therapists in the field, so the results are grounded in real-life experiences. To date, MassageNet has completed several studies, with more to come. There is no cost for registration and participation in MassageNet, and therapists can decide in which studies they would like to participate.

Collaborate with Universities
The third way to get involved in research is to collaborate with university researchers. While rare, there are times when university faculty are looking for experienced massage therapists to help with studies they are undertaking. This type of collaboration ends up being very beneficial because university researchers have experience with study design, data analysis, ethical oversight committees, and scientific writing. Meanwhile, the massage therapist can share knowledge and expertise while still continuing to practice.

There are many ways you can search for university researchers involved in massage therapy research. The first place to look is on the websites of your local universities to see what studies the faculty are doing. Typically, university websites will list faculty and their research interests. If any faculty members have done research on massage, consider contacting them and letting them know you are interested in collaboration.

You can also search PubMed ( for massage research and determine if any of the authors are in your area. Each PubMed listing will include the authors’ names and locations. Some PubMed listings also include the first author’s email address. Consider emailing relevant authors to discuss potential collaboration. Finally, watch to see who presents at massage conferences and conventions. These functions are the perfect time to approach researchers in person.

When contacting a researcher, include some details about yourself—your areas of expertise, education, and style of massage—and why you find the researcher’s work interesting. Ask if the researcher has any projects in which you could collaborate, or if she knows any investigators looking for therapists with your background. Finally, thank the researcher for her time. Like massage therapists, researchers are generally very busy, so be succinct in your approach.

Become a Full-Time Researcher
Finally, some massage therapists may be interested in becoming full-time researchers. This is a very rare career path for MTs, yet desperately needed to further the massage therapy research agenda.

Full-time research includes many different jobs. For example, a therapist may work as a consultant to provide expert opinion on the treatment of subjects in a research study. Another job is that of research assistant to collect and enter study data; some research assistant jobs require specific training, while others will do on-the-job training. Clinical research coordinator is a higher-level research position that oversees the research assistants and ensures that the study logistics are followed. Finally, the principal investigator is the person who developed the research idea and who is ultimately in charge.

If your career plan is to become a principal investigator at a university, you will most likely need an advanced degree. As you know from your massage education, schooling takes time, money, and dedication. There are many factors to consider when determining if graduate school is right for you, including your career goals, your topic area of interest, location of schools, and costs. However, being a full-time researcher is very fulfilling, in that the direction of the research is purely your own. There is nothing more exciting than discovering new findings and sharing them with the massage profession.

The Bottom Line
Massage is growing in popularity, and we need research to support what we do. Whether you get involved through writing a case report, joining a PBRN, collaborating with established researchers, or becoming a researcher yourself, it is all important and will make a difference in moving this profession forward.

Jerrilyn Cambron, DC, PhD, MPH, LMT, is an educator at the National University of Health Sciences and president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. Contact her at

1. G. Keller, “The Effects of Massage Therapy After Decompression and Fusion Surgery of the Lumbar Spine: a Case Study,” International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork 5, no. 4 (2012): 3–8.

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