A Massage Therapist's Guide to SomaSimple

The SomaSimple forums are one of the best resources available for any manual therapist working with clients with chronic pain. However, massage therapists who find their way to the SomaSimple site are often overwhelmed at first by the enormity of the material, intimidated by the level of discussion, and confused about where to start. Having been through that and survived, I'd like to help make it easier for those curious massage therapists who come behind me. Why? Because I think that what SomaSimple has to offer is of enormous value and can't be found anywhere else. It is one of the best resources I've found for learning about current pain science and how to apply it in your practice.

What is SomaSimple?

SomaSimple is a website of forums and archived material for science-minded manual therapists. The majority of members are physical therapists (called physiotherapists outside of the U.S.). Other professions are also represented: osteopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists, yoga instructors, personal trainers, coaches. What they have in common is an interest in pain science and science relevant to manual therapists.

Venturing into SomaSimple for the first time can be rather daunting for the average massage therapist. However, if you are serious about learning how the body works, understanding how pain works, and how you can apply current pain science in your practice, it is worth taking the time to stick around, explore, and get comfortable with the SomaSimple site. It may take a little time and a little effort to get oriented and feel at home, but once you do, there is a treasure trove of useful information. The education you can get there, for free, can outstrip most seminars for which you'd pay hundreds of dollars. You can learn things that will help you be more effective at working with clients with chronic pain. It is worth the small investment of time and effort to learn to navigate the site.

Where to start?

I suggest the first stop should be the Culture of SomaSimple page. This page gives a brief description of what goes on at SomaSimple. One of the most important things to understand is summed up in the statement, "Here you are safe, but your ideas may not be!" This is a hard concept for some massage therapists (and many other manual therapists) to grasp at first but one that is essential. Many MTs do not separate themselves as a person from their ideas. At Soma, participants are serious about engaging in vigorous examination of science and how to apply it to manual therapy. If someone says something that doesn't make sense to them, they will question it. Discussion is focused on trying to figure things out, understand how the body works, understand how the nervous system works, understand how pain works, and understand how we, as manual therapists, can help the person in pain. People are often very direct and too the point. Many MTs are not accustomed to this level of debate and take these challenges personally. Many newcomers are not accustomed to having to defend their statements and are often taken aback if they say something and are asked for their reasoning or evidence to support it. They think they are being attacked. This is not so. They are being asked to explain their ideas, their clinical reasoning, how they came to their conclusion, or their assumptions, but this is not a challenge of them as a person. Soma has a strict policy of not allowing personal attacks and will suspend members from commenting if they violate it repeatedly. You will not find the ugly, vicious, personal attacks so common in many online forums. Neither will you find people taking offense if you disagree or question them.

Once you become accustomed to this information-focused discussion, it's actually quite liberating. It is one of the few places where you are really free to ask the difficult questions and not have someone take offense. You can quickly (if you are lucky!) learn that being required to be able to defend your ideas sharpens your thinking. It makes you examine exactly where do your ideas come from and do they, in fact, make sense? And if they don't stand up to careful examination, perhaps it's time to rethink them and replace them with ideas that can stand up to careful examination.

The next place to stop might be the "Welcome Guest" page. Check out the Information for Guests. Many questions can be answered in some of the threads here. You'll find information on how to register. The "Disagreement Heirarchy" is a good thread to check out. The "Forum Moderator's Current Consensus on Pain" is another good page to read. Don't worry if you don't completely understand it right away. The "Welcome, Bienvenue" forum is a place to find out about the individual moderators and introduce yourself as a new member, should you decide to become a member. You might want to read some of the forum threads for awhile and get familiar before you do introduce yourself but certainly, after you've spent a little time getting a sense of the forums, you should do it. You are welcome to remain a lurker but you'll learn a lot more if you participate.

You don't have to become a member of Soma to read some of the forums, but if you do become a member (which is free), there are added benefits. Some forums are only open to members and there is a massive amount of information in the archives (studies, all sorts of material) that becomes available to you after you've been a member for 30 days and posted at least 10 comments. I don't even know where to begin to explain how to explore the archived information since I've barely touched it myself. If you take off in that direction and you find something particularly good, leave a comment here so we can find it, too. There's a lifetime of material available.

I should mention that the founder of the site, Bernard, is French and there is an entire section of SomaSimple that is in French.

The SomaSimple discussion forums

The forums are my favorite part of SomaSimple. Here you will find a variety of conversations on topics relating to current pain science and manual therapy practice. Remember that many of the participants are PTs. Some of the applications may be outside of our scope of practice but there's still plenty to be learned that can be useful to MTs. Be prepared for a level of discussion that may be over your head. Don't let that scare you! It will get easier, I promise! Sometimes they are using PT language that is unfamiliar to most MTs and many of the participants have been studying and discussing pain science for many years. It may sound like gobbledygook at first. You may be puzzled why they are so obsessed with the nervous system. (Hint: What "feels" the pain? What causes muscles to contract or relax? If you answered, "The nervous system," then you'll understand why it's such a focus of attention.) Relax and read for awhile. Look for some forums that sound interesting and check them out. I like to look at the new posts and go from there. If you find a thread that you want to follow, find the "thread tools" at the top and subscribe to it.

Making use of what you learn

Once the ideas discussed start sinking in, you may wonder how to apply them with your clients. As you become more accustomed to the idea that you are working with the nervous system rather than manipulating myofascial tissues, you may wonder how to incorporate this knowledge in your practice. Jason Silvernail wrote an excellent piece called Crossing the Chasm that gives suggestions on how to make the transition from a tissue-based approach to a neurological one. Although it is directed at physical therapists and their need to practice and keep records in a manner that will satisfy their colleagues who may not yet understand a neurobiological approach, it may still help massage therapists get an idea of how to make the shift.

New ways of thinking, new tools

SomaSimple is not necessarily a place to learn techniques, though one can learn some techniques there. In particular, Barrett Dorko teaches an approach called Simple Contact and has forums where you can learn more about it. Diane Jacobs teaches an approach called Dermoneuromodulation (DNM) and you can check out her forums. However, Soma is, more than anything, a place to stay informed about current pain science and a place to learn how to think. You may continue to use the same modalities that you have used in the past but your thinking about them may change. Barrett Dorko likes to say, "Change your thinking, not your tools."

As in any gathering of people, you'll find different personalities who express themselves in different ways. Some might be a little easier than others. Don't let personality get in the way of your learning. Some folks might be easier or more difficult to understand at first. Over time, as you get to know people, how they communicate, and the material being discussed, it gets easier. 

If you decide to stick around and find the site useful, please make a donation to help keep the site going. You'll find a link at the top left of the discussion lists page.

We hope you'll stick around and participate!

I hope you'll check out SomaSimple, explore, and make yourself at home. It really is a unique resource. The participants are incredibly generous with their time and resources. I've gotten valuable mentoring from a number of SomaSimplers. In spite of my lack of degrees and formal education, I've never been made to feel "less" by anyone. It took a few months before I had the courage to begin to participate, but I've had nothing but encouragement. When I haven't understood what's being said, I've asked questions. No one has ever responded as if I were unworthy because I didn't understand a term or an idea.

You'll find that there are, in fact, a few other massage therapists among the participants and we are welcome there. I hope there will be more of us in the future. Besides offering information that is very valuable to us as manual therapists, SomaSimple also offers a model of high-level, civilized, science-minded discussions that is rare outside of the hard sciences.

Check it out and if you need a little help finding your way around or getting used to it, you can always ask me or one of the other massage therapists for help.

Hope to see you there!