You may have heard the term “evidence-based practice” bandied about in relation to a broad range of disciplines, from medical practice to education to social psychology. Although the term was coined in 1992, the idea has been around for much longer, emphasizing a synthesis of rigorous peer-reviewed research, clinical observation and expertise, and interpretation of anecdotal and intuitive information through the scientific method. Evidenced-based practice has quickly gained traction among the medical community and has helped to improve patient care and practitioner credibility through establishing standards of practice and reliable sources of information.
Evidence-based practice (EBP) was a new concept to me when I started graduate school, which in retrospect is actually a little alarming. I immediately saw the potential to apply EBP to my massage therapy, and found it a little hard to believe that this wasn’t being already routinely taught and reinforced in massage schools. The school I attended has an excellent reputation and I believe that I got a high-quality foundation in massage therapy. However, the two days of class (out of an entire year) that we spent on reading and evaluating peer-reviewed journal articles were sorely inadequate (and the information on how to evaluate the impact of studies was cursory at best). I don’t think everyone needs to have taken graduate-level research methods and statistical analysis to be a great massage practitioner and consumer of information, but the disconnect I see between empiricism and practice in my profession troubles me.
I feel like massage therapy, as a discipline, is at the same crossroads that chiropractic medicine was 15 or 20 years ago. Chiropractors faced a conflict between highly educated, skilled practitioners whose methods were informed by keeping up with current research and their own expertise built upon observation over years of practice, and practitioners with dubious credentials who peddled quackery and “cures” on par with the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear. Chiropractors managed to change and improve standards of practice and the educational gateways to certification and licensure, bringing the profession as a whole into a more credible light in the medical community.The key to this paradigm shift was attention to the existing body of empirical evidence and constantly questioning tradition, asking “is there a more effective way to do this” than simply accepting that the current methodology is best because it’s the way it has always been done.
I routinely hear massage therapists insist that massage helps to flush lactic acid from the body to reduce the onset of muscle soreness. While this was an accepted explanation of mechanism 30 years ago, advances in muscle physiology now suggest that lactic acid uptake occurs rapidly following intense efforts and physiologists agree that lactate buildup is not responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness (although the exact mechanism remains unclear). The research has progressed to offer new answers and better understanding because we continue to question why and how. Keeping up with current empirical evidence and developments is an essential part of EBP – otherwise, our practices stagnate and we end up reinventing the wheel with each iteration from teacher to student. (On a side note, a slightly devious confession: I actually like using the lactic acid uptake question as a litmus test for massage therapists to see if they are keeping up with the literature or just parroting what they learned in school. It’s surprisingly revealing.)
Perhaps EBP’s greatest strength is the emphasis on blending old with new, looking to history and tradition as well as the latest empirical research and clinical evidence to offer the best possible clinical reasoning. I often hear things like “massage wouldn’t have been around for thousands of years if it didn’t work,” and I think there is merit to this argument. At the same time, it is essential to use all the modern tools at our disposal to question tradition; otherwise, people might still be saying the same thing about antiquated practices like bloodletting that have been discontinued, having been disproved by scientific inquiry. By testing traditional wisdom through carefully designed experimentation, we can confirm methods that promote beneficial effect and eliminate those that may be ineffectual or even harmful.
What I hope for you to take away is an appreciation for the rigorous questioning of information. Assess the reliability of your sources and note where they agree or diverge. Seek a multitude of resources and opinions, and ask meaningful questions about why we do what we do. Be confident in your convictions but always ready to entertain questions and defend them honestly and with awareness of all factors, even when they are in conflict. Don’t settle for “this is the way we do things,” but challenge the norms – at the very worst, you will confirm the veracity of your claims, and at best you will be armed with new knowledge to improve upon your methods and reach toward excellence. This is the very basis for growth in everything we do, and it is an absolute win-win. My charge to you is to challenge something small every day, and keep digging tenaciously until your curiosity is satisfied.