Today, massage modalities come in many types and flavours. It’s great to have the choice but to some this can prove to be frustrating. I’m talking about sceptics, or people who have hairs standing up on their arms as soon as they hear talk of ‘trapped energies’. They want the muscle manipulation without the side dish of spirituality. If this sounds like you, you probably find navigating the world of massage time-consuming and draining, and maybe even think it might not be for you at all. Well, this article is for you. Welcome.

A word on scepticism

It’s true that nowadays ‘scepticism’ has acquired slightly negative connotations, summoning an image of a person who pretends to be interested just to derail a discussion (‘I’m just asking questions’, ‘What, I can’t ask a question now?’ – we’ve all met them) or someone who is hard to please, a cynic or even a nihilist of sorts. However, there’s nothing wrong with simply not accepting things at face value, and questioning what you hear. When we use the word ‘sceptic’ in this article, we mean a healthy inclination to doubt information that’s not backed by sufficient evidence.

Evidence-based massage therapy

If you’re looking for evidence-based massage therapy, you want something that is shown to work by the findings of scientific research. Sounds simple enough. We know that physically manipulating muscles releases tension. We know that it can reduce pain and anxiety. But here’s the catch. Beyond these basic truths, you will have to exercise your judgement, as it’s far from straight forward. Why?

Not all massage techniques have been researched

Research costs resources. This means that some types of massage are not well researched to this day. It is especially true of emerging modalities, which haven’t been on the scene long enough to get attention and research funding. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ineffective, only that we haven’t had the chance to test them out. You might want to give them a go and see how you feel, or you might decide that you prefer the tried-and-tested to the cutting edge.

Often evidence is inconclusive

Just because a massage technique has been researched, it doesn’t mean we have ‘the answer’. One, the sample size (number of participants in the study) might be too small to mean anything. Two, research findings often show correlation rather than causation. When this happens, we know that two events occur together (e.g. a massage session and reduction in pain) but we cannot say that they happen because of each other (e.g. massage session reduced the pain). Furthermore, sometimes it’s not possible to detangle these from a bunch of other factors (e.g. you might have been doing back stretches at the same time…or changed your diet…or went on holidays and took a break from your uncomfortable work chair).

In fact, we rarely know 100%

It might surprise you that most research does not deliver definitive answers. Researchers come up with a catchy paper title, media runs with it. Sometimes it results in misinformation, sometimes it is the truth, and good luck to the public separating those two out. We get catchy research headlines because people like simple, clear-cut truths. For example, to this day we do not have conclusive evidence that tobacco causes lung cancer, even though we’re pretty damn sure. It may not be 100% but there’s evidence enough for us to quit. In the field of massage, we don’t have conclusive evidence that massage helps lower back pain or headaches, although it seems obvious.

Finding your way

nude male lying on white sheets, a towel half covering his buttocks

Whichever massage modality this is, I’m in.

So where does it leave you? In the dark. Well, not quite, but you are left to exercise your own judgement. Luckily, with a good masseur you’re unlikely to come to harm, whatever massage modality you choose. It might help your lower back pain, it might not. At the very least you will be able to relax, surrender to his caring hands and enjoy your pampering. So go for what you know works for you, or try something new and keep an open mind. If something sounds like it will not benefit you, simply go for a different option.

Massage for sceptics

We can’t tell you which techniques are ‘legit’ and which aren’t, because it’s ultimately your call. But as a very rough rule of thumb, massage techniques that involve manipulating muscles are likely to have some beneficial effect. Elements that do not involve this, whilst they might form part of massage, are often based on spiritual practices. If they rub you the wrong way (pardon the pun), you might choose to skip them. Such elements include:

  • Reiki – a type of healing energy practice originating in Japan and focussing on chi.
  • Craniosacral therapy – the practitioner touches parts of the patient’s head to promote healing.
  • Acupressure – involves applying pressure to particular points (‘meridians’) on the body.
  • Tantric touch – touch is used to enhance the sexual energy in the body.
  • Aromatherapy – essential oils are burned to soothe the mind and by extension, the body.
  • Breathwork – conscious breathing in order to induce a particular emotional state.

A word on placebo effect

A technique might have a placebo effect. It’s an effect that is produced by your psychological reaction to it rather than the technique itself. This is often dismissed as being equal to no effect at all, but that is not true. If your brain accepts the premise as true, it can send the right signals to your body. If your body then responds by healing, you got what you came for. It doesn’t mean you’re naive, you’re just using your body’s innate ability to repair itself. We all experience the benefits of placebo effect when we get a doctor’s prescription, a proportion of prescriptions is either for sugar pills or a medication that, while real, has no effect on the specific complaint.

The golden rule

Take what you need, leave what you don’t. Once you are happy, let others do the same. Each of us is different, biologically and psychologically, and what we need will differ as well. There is no algorithm for our health and well being outcomes. What works for me might not do for you. As anywhere else in life, respect to individual choice is a good approach to take. Take a leaf from the page of scientific researchers, they know how hard it is to find an absolute truth.

Ask and you shall receive

If some massage practices are not for you, it’s easy to avoid them. It’s best to discuss this at the time of booking but you can also tell your masseur before your session begins. Massage therapists and the men who come to see them both vary in their interests and beliefs. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach as such, but a massage will be more satisfying if it is customised and any potential issues are discussed beforehand. At Touch of London, we generally offer Tantric Massage as ‘the works’ since it’s what we specialize in and what our clients prefer. However, if tantric touch is not your cup of tea, we would suggest Body to Body or Sensual Sports massage.