OSU rabbit massage study is No. 2 for wasteful spending

By Maggie Thurber | For Ohio Watchdog

The Ohio State University is ranked No. 2!

Not in football, mind you. The Buckeyes currently rank 13th in the weekly AP poll.

The second place ranking is for a group of researchers whose study of rabbit massages earned them the dubious distinction in the much-anticipated 2014 Wastebook.

Each year , Oklahoma Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn compiles a list of what he considers to be the most egregious examples of the “countless frivolous projects the government funded in the last 12 months with borrowed money and your tax dollars.”

The OSU research project, second of 100 projects to make the list, is characterized as “Swedish Massages for Rascally Rabbits.”

The official title sounds a bit more serious: Massage Therapy in Eccentric Exercise Induced Muscle Weakness and Inflammation.

The funding came from the National Institutes of Health through its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Yes, the same organization that blamed budget cuts for a lack of an Ebola vaccine, spent $387,000 to give rabbits Swedish massages.

According to the Wastebook, the purpose of the study was to “learn how to identify the most optimal application of massage therapy to treat human muscle aches and injuries.”

In order to do this, the researchers purchased 18 New Zealand White rabbits — weren’t American ones good enough? — sedated them, fitted them with nerve cuffs and then electrically stimulated their hind leg muscles to mimic a workout.

They then gave some of them an immediate massage, some of them a delayed massage and some got nothing at all. Some got four 30-minute massages each day. Lucky rabbits.

The conclusion: Massages immediately after exercise are better than delayed ones, which are better than none at all.

Couldn’t they have found this out by using humans instead of buying rabbits and building equipment to simulate human exercise and spending $387,000, Wastebook asks?

Perhaps not — the rabbits were euthanized after the experiment was completed in order to examine the overall impact on the muscles.

But what the Wastebook fails to mention is that this $387,000 isn’t the total amount spent on the rabbit massage study.

NIH actually provided four years of funding for a total of $1,554,493. Seven research papers were published from the study.

According to a press release from June 2012, researchers used NIH funds to determine the best parameters of a massage, including pressure, duration and time. Again, they used New Zealand White rabbits and a special machine to give the massage.

They found that the amount of pressure in a massage is more important than the length of a massage.

“We have translated what we thought was going on in humans, largely based on self-reporting, into the laboratory and designed the instrumentation to apply controllable and measurable forces,” Thomas Best said in the release.

Then there is this statement, also from Best:

“We found if damaged muscle is massaged right away – for 15 minutes – there is a 20 to 40 percent chance of recovery. Initial injury in the animal model was extended if massage did not take place within 24 hours.”

The headline for that press release was “Prompt massage can ease muscle injury.”

But that’s what the most recent paper said as well. So if they knew in 2012 that an immediate massage improved the chances of recovery, why did they need another round of funding and more rabbit massages to tell them the exact same thing in 2013?

Though the researchers did not respond to requests for interviews about their study, OSU did provide a statement from Caroline Whitacre, vice president for research:

“The so-called “rabbit massage” research cited as a waste of federal spending is important research designed to help address a key question: Is massage effective as a medical treatment?

“By understanding how massage works biologically, Ohio State University researchers have the potential to determine how massage could be effective as a treatment for millions of people who suffer from debilitating conditions and disorders that affect their muscles.

“This translational research strongly suggests that massage reduces swelling and muscle damage when performed after intense exercise. The work also suggests how much massage is needed, for how long, and when it should be performed after exercise.

“Lots of people believe in the benefits of massage, but we don’t really know how or why an intervention works until we study it at the cellular and molecular level.

“In these early investigations, the only safe way to conduct this research is in animals. Our scientists have developed plans to translate these findings into appropriate therapies for people after conducting research using human participants.

“Considering the expected benefits of this research, it’s unfortunate that the science has been subjected to political scrutiny without a full understanding of the facts.”

The research is continuing, Gary Lewis, OSU senior director of media and public relations, said in an email, though the scope of work funded by NIH has concluded.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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