Therapeutic massage and bodywork (TMB) practitioners are predominantly trained in programs that are not uniformly standardized, and in variable combinations of therapies. To date no studies have explored this variability in training and how this affects clinical practice.
Combined methods, consisting of a quantitative, population-based survey and qualitative interviews with practitioners trained in multiple therapies, were used to explore the training and practice of TMB practitioners in Alberta, Canada.
Of the 5242 distributed surveys, 791 were returned (15.1%). Practitioners were predominantly female (91.7%), worked in a range of environments, primarily private (44.4%) and home clinics (35.4%), and were not significantly different from other surveyed massage therapist populations. Seventy-seven distinct TMB therapies were identified. Most practitioners were trained in two or more therapies (94.4%), with a median of 8 and range of 40 therapies. Training programs varied widely in number and type of TMB components, training length, or both. Nineteen interviews were conducted. Participants described highly variable training backgrounds, resulting in practitioners learning unique combinations of therapy techniques. All practitioners reported providing individualized patient treatment based on a responsive feedback process throughout practice that they described as being critical to appropriately address the needs of patients. They also felt that research treatment protocols were different from clinical practice because researchers do not usually sufficiently acknowledge the individualized nature of TMB care provision.
The training received, the number of therapies trained in, and the practice descriptors of TMB practitioners are all highly variable. In addition, clinical experience and continuing education may further alter or enhance treatment techniques. Practitioners individualize each patient's treatment through a highly adaptive process. Therefore, treatment provision is likely unique to each practitioner. These results may be of interest to researchers considering similar practice issues in other professions. The use of a combined-methods design effectively captured this complexity of TMB practice. TMB research needs to consider research approaches that can capture or adapt to the individualized nature of practice.