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Development of a taxonomy to describe massage treatments for musculoskeletal pain

Karen J Sherman12*, Marian W Dixon3, Diana Thompson4 and Daniel C Cherkin15

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Health Studies, Group Health Cooperative, Seattle, Washington 98101, USA

2 Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

3 Private Practice, Portland, Oregon 97214, USA

4 Private Practice, Seattle, Washington 98112, USA

5 Departments of Family Medicine and Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2006, 6:24  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-6-24

Published: 23 June 2006



One of the challenges in conducting research in the field of massage and bodywork is the lack of consistent terminology for describing the treatments given by massage therapists. The objective of this study was to develop a taxonomy to describe what massage therapists actually do when giving a massage to patients with musculoskeletal pain.


After conducting a review of the massage treatment literature for musculoskeletal pain, a list of candidate techniques was generated for possible inclusion in the taxonomy. This list was modified after discussions with a senior massage therapist educator and seven experienced massage therapists participating in a study of massage for neck pain.


The taxonomy was conceptualized as a three level classification system, principal goals of treatment, styles, and techniques. Four categories described the principal goal of treatment (i.e., relaxation massage, clinical massage, movement re-education and energy work). Each principal goal of treatment could be met using a number of different styles, with each style consisting of a number of specific techniques. A total of 36 distinct techniques were identified and described, many of which could be included in multiple styles.


A new classification system is presented whereby practitioners using different styles of massage can describe the techniques they employ using consistent terminology. This system could help facilitate standardized reporting of massage interventions.