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Healwell Symposium Focused on Creating Meaningful Massage Therapy Research


Healwell Symposium 2023

By Cal Cates and Corey Rivera

A February Healwell symposium, “Within Reach: The Quest for Information and Research,” offered a deep dive into information literacy and research, particularly in the field of massage therapy.

At Healwell, we have the distinct pleasure and honor of collaborating with some pretty incredible researchers from a variety of disciplines. We are always learning from and with them about information, data, and what it takes to create meaningful research and to help others understand it. Massage therapy feels particularly challenged when it comes to these questions. We wanted to create an event that invited us all to learn together and in ways that were dynamic and engaging so attendees could go out and start using what they learned right away in their practices and in their lives. 

Kicking off the event was Taylor Xiao (dubbed “The Loud Librarian”), an assessment and instruction librarian at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, who delivered a keynote unpacking bias and authority in information. She firmly impressed on us that it is our responsibility to assess and question the source of authority every time we are presented with a situation. We need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this person an authority? What makes them an authority?” She also emphatically insisted, "Bring your receipts," meaning you should always know where you got your information when you assert a fact—and be able to share that source with others.

Some of the more confusing aspects of research were addressed by Dr. Ann Blair Kennedy, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the University of South Carolina, Greenville, and most recent editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Massage Therapy and Bodywork; massage therapy favorite Dr. Lauren Fowler, professor of neuroscience at Wake Forest School of Medicine; and Dr. Donelda Gowan, adjunct professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine. Dr. Kennedy got us excited about formulating and searching for questions in evidence-based medicine, and Dr. Fowler demystified statistics and charts (and how they may misinform or deliberately confuse). Dr. Gowan spoke about the challenges massage therapy research faces regarding sustainability and support for the researchers themselves.

Educator and pathology expert Ruth Werner and Nancy Steinberg, who is a science communicator in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, told stories from the real world about “science communication”—when it goes well and when it doesn’t. The presenters asked each other questions about their jobs, philosophies, and struggles in communicating scientific information. For example, is it better to go for the clickbait title when writing an article and lose people after the first paragraph, or be honest and hope they’re really interested in the topic? The result was an informal but illuminating look at the complexities of translating scientific information for a broader audience.

Cal Cates and Corey Rivera began the “Let’s Get Ready to Grumble” segment, exploring common logical fallacies before moving into a semi-traditional debate about whether massage therapy should be considered health care or a service. This opened a conversation with attendees about how and why massage therapists continue to have the same disagreements and conversations decade after decade about what we are and what we are not. No answers were found, but many thoughts, new perspectives, and feelings were expressed by all.

Carrie Byrd, the reference and instruction librarian from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, intended to take us to the world of “Scholarship as Conversation,” but was organically redirected when she realized we could all use some help doing a thing we all thought we knew how to do: a proper internet search. She quickly discovered that we were wasting our lives on nonspecific queries and she wanted to save us from this ongoing fate. She pulled up Google Scholar and had a fluid conversation with attendees about Boolean modifiers and how to really find what you’re looking for without going bonkers. Minds blown. Lives saved. Productivity restored.

Dr. Niki Munk opened the second day of the event with a fascinating and comprehensive journey through “The State of Massage Therapy Research,” which detailed the important moments of massage therapy research over the last 50 years. She described seminal published works, the development of massage research conferences, and dissemination efforts. (Note—this is the only session that you are still able to purchase and watch, for 2 CEs. All other presenters, out of respect for the constantly changing nature of information, asked that we not make their sessions available beyond the date of the event.) 

We rounded out the second day with Dr. Gowan (mentioned above) and Cathy Ryan, RMT. Ryan is a leading educator in scar tissue mobilization and fascia, and she is one of the authors of Traumatic Scar Tissue Management: Massage Therapy Principles, Practice, and Protocols. Ryan’s love of connective tissue is obvious any time she teaches, and she loves to gently and accurately lead massage therapists away from their erroneous stories about “breaking up” scar tissue with her understanding of the latest science about fascia, tissue remodeling, and endless and related “nerdtastic” information. She shared enthusiastically about her self-directed journey discovering fascial research, applying what she learned to her practice, interacting with researchers, and the process of rediscovery that occurs as new information is revealed. Ryan loves to use research that is not “intended” for massage therapists and interpret it for her practice . . . and she shared how we can all do that very thing.

This event was sponsored by Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, Books of Discovery, Massage and Myotherapy Australia, Massage Therapist Association of Saskatchewan, the Massage Therapy Foundation, Registered Massage Therapists of British Columbia, and Singing Dragon.

Healwell hosts a massage-therapy specific symposium each year, and we are always discussing and teaching about research in the Healwell Online Interdisciplinary Community