Sometimes we see a post on social media about a new research finding that adds a better understanding of how our body works. And sometimes these findings may (or may not) apply to what we do with our clients or patients. So how do we know if certain research can be applied to what we do or not? The last thing we want to do is to misinterpret the research and fabricate narratives to fit our opinions.

Research is divided into two broad areas: basic science and applied research (sometimes called translational research). Basic science is research that’s just trying to figure out how things work. How does knocking out this gene affect potassium channels? If we put this current in here, what happens over there? There’s no thinking about practical applications of it. Maybe it will end up being significant in curing a kidney disease, or maybe it won’t. We’re just trying to figure out how this works.

Applied research, however, is trying to find out if something can applied to the clinic or gym or not, “translating” existing knowledge about biology into techniques and tools for treating human disease: from bench to bedside.” (1,2)

For example, a compound might kill a certain type of cancer cell in a Petri dish. That’s basic science. Testing that compound by administering it to humans and seeing if it will kill those same cancer cells in their body without doing harm to anything else is clinical research. There is a long way from the petri dish to the clinical trials, many steps in between, and most discoveries don’t make it that far.

In another example, it’s not certain if this particular study — published in the Journal of Neurophysiology — can be applied to massage or any other types of manual therapy. Technically, this study falls into the category of basic science. It’s figuring how certain types of sensory nerve endings in a particular location in the body work when subjected to certain types of stimulation.

That’s it. It’s not drawing any conclusions about any practical application of that. It’s not evident that there is any practical application. To jump into a conclusion that this is clinically relevant to manual therapy is like the popular press proclaiming, “Scientists find cure for cancer!” when they have found a compound that kills a specific type of cancer cell in a Petri dish.

So what should massage therapists ask if they encounter a research finding that seem relevant to what they do? Or a claim they read on social media that is supposed to be “backed up” by a PubMed article or a reference dump?

“Well, I have bad news and good news. I think it’s extremely difficult for someone who is not a researcher to read and interpret research articles. Even people who are researchers can’t do this in an area outside of their area of expertise. Research articles are written by and for researchers in that specific area of inquiry.

“I think the problem is related to internet argumentation, in general, where many people look to PubMed, Google Scholar, or other research databases mostly to confirm their biases or to ‘win’ arguments. Most are not using the literature in the manner in which it was intended,” Dr. Molly K. Gregas explained in an online interview with Massage & Fitness Magazine, who is a research communication specialist in Toronto, Ontario. “But this phenomenon is not limited to massage therapists; it’s endemic to the information age, which is why information literacy is so crucial in all areas of work and life. One suggestion is to consult a research librarian, either at a public library or university library, to help find good information related to a question and to interpret that information. Most reference libraries have science and subject experts who are happy to engage with curious people.”

Dr. Gregas also warned that we should check our own motivations and biases and engage in better critical thinking. “Overestimation of expertise is a problem with many people, who have enough education or insight to get in their own way.”

While it is difficult for us to decide whether a research finding is relevant to what we do or not, learning to be science literate and critical thinking can help us spot red flags in claims while questioning these claims to gain deeper and better understanding — like using the Socratic Method. Blindly accepting someone’s claim can mislead us, which may likely spark the spreading for false narratives and misinformation in the professions. (5)

“Overall, I’m not saying that massage therapists and other clinicians shouldn’t read primary research, I’m saying that they should better understand their own limitations in understanding the level of detail and scope of individual research articles as a small part of a huge mosaic of scientific understanding,” Gregas explained. “Just because you can change the oil on your own vehicle does not mean that you are qualified to rebuild the engine.”

 

References

1. Selep M. Translational Research vs. Basic Science: Comparing Apples to Upside-down Apples. PLOS Blogs. 2013.

2. Goldblatt EM, Lee W-H. From bench to bedside: the growing use of translational research in cancer medicine. American Journal of Translational Research. 2010;2(1):1-18.

3. D. F. Collins, K. M. Refshauge, G. Todd, S. C. Gandevia. Cutaneous Receptors Contribute to Kinesthesia at the Index Finger, Elbow, and Knee. Journal of Neurophysiology. 1 September 2005. Vol. 94 no. 3, 1699-1706 DOI:10.1152/jn.00191.2005

4. Explaining Research. Clinical and Translational Research Institute. UCSD.

5. Vicario MD et al. The spreading of misinformation online. PNAS. January 19, 2016 vol. 113 no. 3 554-559. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517441113.