What is Effective in Massage Therapy? Well, “It Depends…”: a Qualitative Study of Experienced Orthopaedic Massage Therapists

Jennifer L. Stewart-Richardson, Suzanne Hopf, Judith Crockett, Phillipa Southwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Massage has been used as a treatment for musculoskeletal pain throughout history and across cultures, and yet most meta-analyses have only shown weak support for the efficacy of massage. There is a recognised need for more research in foundational questions including: how massage treatments are constructed; what therapists actually do within a treatment, including their clinical reasoning; and what role therapists play in determining the effectiveness of a massage treatment. Purpose: The aim of this study was to explore what experienced orthopaedic massage therapists consider to be the aspects of their work that contribute to effectiveness. Setting and Participants: Semi-structured interviews were conducted via Zoom with six experienced orthopaedic massage therapists in Australia. Research Design: The interviews were analysed using inductive thematic analy-sis, seeking insights that might be practi-cally applied, rather than theory-driven interpretations. Results: The participants focused on the underlying differences between cli-ents, between therapists, and between treatments, and clearly indicated that this concept of “difference” was foundational to their view of their work and was the underlying context for the comments they made. Within that frame of “differ-ence”, three key themes were interpreted from the data: (1) “Everyone is different so every treatment is different”: how they individualised treatment based on these differences; (2) “How therapists cope with difference”: how they managed the challenges of working in this context; and (3) “What makes a difference”: the problem-solving processes they used to target each treatment to meeting the cli-ent’s needs. Conclusions: Participants did not identify specific techniques or modalities as “effective” or not. Rather, a therapist’s ability to provide effective treatment was based on an iterative process of treatment and assessment that allowed them to focus on the individual needs of the cli-ent. In this case “effectiveness” could be considered a process rather than a specific massage technique.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-18
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork: Research, Education, and Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2024


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