“Squeeze play” (Alternative massage therapy)


Massage is the manual manipulation of muscles, joints, and tissues for therapy. It can help relieve soreness, increase range of motion, and feels pleasant enough. Leave it to alternative medicine to screw all that up.

Some unscrupulous practitioners make claims that go far beyond massage’s abilities, asserting it can eradicate or ameliorate disease. Some integrative medicine specialists and Dr. Oz claim the practice is effective for allergies, asthma, bronchitis, constipation, diarrhea, fibromyalgia, and sinusitis. Proponents also credit massage with work done by the liver, kidneys, and colon, saying it can help with waste removal, immune system functioning, and toxin removal, though they never specify which toxins or explain how squeezing someone’s shoulders will exorcise them.

As to its supposed role in disease control, there is no scientifically plausible explanation for how this works, nor any double blind studies attesting to this ability. The claims primarily rely on the mythical concept of the ki flowing through meridians, and the purported need to periodically unblock this. Neither ki nor meridians have never been shown to exist in any X-ray or CT scan and no explanation is proffered on how any technique would clear blockages or why this would be beneficial.

There are subcategories of medicinal massage malarkey. The ones most resembling traditional, legitimate massage are acupressure and shiatsu. These are so similar that the only difference seems to be that the former aims to access ki, while the latter taps into qi. As to the technique, it’s mostly just a massage, though more attention is usually paid to a specific body part. Different parts are said to be connected via meridians to various internal organs or tissues. So applying acupressure to the lower right thumb might be used to deal with wheezing lungs. There are multitudinous meridian charts so which body part corresponds to which organ or tissue will vary by practitioner. By contrast, all physicians would treat strep throat in generally the same manner, with prescriptions and proven, understood techniques that were arrived at via the Scientific Method and validated in double blind studies.

Acupressure and shiatsu generally advertise themselves as needle-less acupuncture. This is a relatively good idea since the only point of acupuncture is at the end of the needles. If spending 60 minutes receiving make-believe medicine, getting pampered is preferable to getting poked.

Aromatherapy might be considered another form of medicinal massage, although the focus is less on the hands and more on what the hands are applying. In aromatherapy, an essential oil or combination of oils is applied topically, usually on an infected body part. Whereas shiatsu may involve rubbing a calf to try and placate an upset stomach, in aromatherapy, oil would be applied on the infected body part.

Aromatherapy is a little less ridiculous than the other forms of massage medicine. For one, there are no meridians or ki associated with it. Second, the oils are extracted from plants and herbs. About half of medicines have a plant base, so it is not entirely unrealistic to think that some of the oils may have medicinal potential.

The big problem is that they haven’t been tested in a laboratory. There has been no active component identified or isolated. No correct dosage has been determined and no pill, lotion, or cream containing the extracted ingredient has been tested in double blind studies.

Instead, a practitioner or online proponent will announce, “Jasmine works great for migraines,” or “Try sage and patchouli for inflammation.” Another tipster may suggest sandalwood for the same aliments and a third person offer lavender. All the recommendations are all based on anecdotes, which are unreliable because they fail to consider the fluctuating nature of illnesses, the placebo effect, or selective memory. That is why double blind studies are the gold standard for determining what works.

There are no such studies attesting to effectiveness of craniosacral therapy. This from of massage medicine is based on the notion that skull bones are movable and can be manipulated for a variety of health benefits. Precisely what benefit is almost invariably whichever one the client needs when he or she shows up at the neighborhood head shed. The truth is, a person’s skull bones have fused by the time they are regularly watching Paw Patrol. Also, these bones can only be moved by blunt force or a scalpel, not nimble fingertips. As to why one would want to pull apart and move around the brain’s shield, reasons I found included improving life energy, attuning to rhythm, and getting in touch with one’s inner cinnamon bun, or similar undefined and unproven notions. Yet another form of medicinal massage is reflexology, which focuses on the feet.

The more extreme proponents credit massage medicine with treating several dozen conditions as broad as anger, fear, arthritis, cancer, emphysema, shyness,  eczema, bulimia, insomnia, infertility, nightmares, panic attacks, and sciatica. Lists this exhaustive are nearly always a pseudo-medicine giveaway. Authentic medicine has been researched, tested, refined, and has been tailored to treat a specific condition. Doctors and scientists understand the pathological, biological, and anatomical principles behind it, know how it works, why it works, and why some patients might respond better than others. A mainstream treatment for infertility won’t be used to reduce the anxiety of another patient and to treat dyspepsia in a third.

With no research to verify their claims, medicinal massage practitioners are left with the usual alt-med fallbacks. They display dexterity in this area, for they credit the field with employing both ancient methods and cutting-edge knowledge of physiology. Most alt-med practitioners use only the appeal to antiquity or the appeal to novelty, not both.

Meanwhile, massagetherapy.co.uk makes use of the ad populum (“Shiatsu is one of the fastest growing areas of complementary therapy in the UK”) while tryshiatsu.co.uk appeals to authority (“Shiatsu is officially recognized in Japan.”) This last boast does not say precisely which entity recognized shiatsu, what about it was recognized, or why this matters. As to what shiatsu actually does, the website states that it will, “Contact with the energy pathways and help to correct imbalance in the functioning of internal organs and to re-balance the effects of emotional disturbance.” I have no idea what any of that means, maybe the ki flow to my brain is blocked.

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