Baylor Researchers Publish Largest Study Ever on Massage Therapy Use

July 5, 2024
Woman laying face down getting her back massaged by a therapist

Credit: PeopleImages / Collection: iStock / Getty Images Plus 

Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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WACO, Texas (July 5, 2024) – Many people receive massage therapy and for many reasons. But according to a new study – the largest and most comprehensive ever conducted on the subject – the prevalence of visits to massage therapists is higher than one might have imagined and the reasons may be surprising.

The Baylor study – conducted by Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H., University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, and Matt Bradshaw, Ph.D., research professor of sociology – is published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. The NHIS data is based on a representative sample of the U.S. population and has been conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1957. About every 10 years, the NHIS has collected utilization data on massage therapy.

Using data from more than 27,000 people surveyed as part of the 2022 round of the annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), researchers at Baylor University found that:

  • 11.1% of U.S. adults – one in nine adult Americans or nearly 30 million people – visited a massage therapist in 2021, for any reason;
  • 8.5% used massage therapy for overall health; and
  • 6.0% did so to help with pain.

The NHIS data allowed Levin and Bradshaw to determine who seeks massage therapy and why by looking at about 30 sociodemographic, health services, physical and mental health and well-being, and behavioral variables. Their analysis found that the highest rates of visiting a massage therapist were found among:

  • socioeconomically advantaged people; 
  • those who seek out complementary and integrative health practitioners, including chiropractors, acupuncturists, and naturopaths; and 
  • those who meditate or practice yoga or guided imagery.

Rates also were higher for massage therapy use among those who consider their health as excellent and who are very satisfied with their life. Indicators of physical and mental health and functional status matter but were less predictive.

Although the data points show who seeks massage most frequently, massage use appears to be less a function of health or medical needs than of other factors and may be used, the researchers said, “as part of a wellness-seeking lifestyle or due to interest in mind-body healing. Receiving regular massage may be viewed by some clients more as a self-actualization or even spiritual pursuit.”

While use of complementary or integrative therapies is a significant determinant of massage utilization, the researchers said it may not be fitting to consider massage therapy itself as an “alternative” therapy. Rather, they suggest that it’s a widely used and increasingly mainstream therapeutic modality that merits wider integration into the community of healthcare professions.

Dr. Jeff Levin
Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H., University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health. (Robert Rogers/Baylor University)

“What our study shows is that it’s probably not helpful any longer to label massage as an ‘alternative’ therapy, with all of the marginality that the term conveys,” Levin said. “Licensed massage therapists ought to be respected as mainstream practitioners, whose profession provides a therapeutic approach not just to address pain and functional challenges but to foster wellness and overall well-being, physical and emotional. Everyone can benefit from working with a skilled massage therapist. They’re the hidden gems in the healthcare system.”

To extend this line of research, future studies might focus on potential psychosocial factors, including those associated in prior studies with use of other therapies outside of the mainstream of Western medical specialties.

Levin and Bradshaw are affiliated with Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where Levin is director of ISR’s Program on Religion and Population Health. He also serves as professor of medical humanities at Baylor and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE BAYLOR INSTITUTE FOR STUDIES OF RELIGION

The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) initiates, supports and conducts research on religion, involving scholars and projects spanning the intellectual spectrum: history, psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, theology and religious studies. The institute’s mandate extends to all religions, everywhere, and throughout history, and embraces the study of religious effects on prosocial behavior, family life, population health, economic development and social conflict. For more information, visit the Baylor ISR website.