How to Receive a Professional Massage, Part 2

(This multi-part article is reposted from my work at Everything2. There’s more to know and that will be coming in the next weeks!)  

Narrowing it Down is Half the Battle

Before searchOur office 2ing for a massage therapist, it is a good idea to have an understanding of what massage is and what it can (and can not) do. Massage excels at easing aches and pains in soft tissue (skin, muscle, and the connective tissue which surrounds them). A massage enhances circulation, loosens tight spots in muscles, and increases a person’s overall sense of well­-being. Massage may also circulate lymph, eliminate waste products from tissues and increase the activity of the immune system.

There are a number of maladies for which massage is not particularly effective. Systemic ailments, infectious diseases, and autoimmune disorders are examples of problems for which massage is not an effective treatment. While it may palliate certain symptoms of these ailments, general rule of thumb might be: massage is appropriate for aches and pains of the muscles and connective tissue (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, bones and joints).

Long cursed to exist in the shadowy outlands of society, massage has endured a sleazy reputation often mixed up with prostitution. As it has become more acceptable as a health care modality, some people have lumped massage in with faddish ‘New Age’ or ‘Alternative’ holistic health care practices. While some of these practices may be worthwhile, effective treatments, there are unquestionably some which are dubious—even potentially hazardous. The buyer should definitely beware!

A Matter of Style

For the inexperienced massage client, the variety of massage styles can be absolutely bewildering—there seem to be hundreds, with new ones being added all the time. It is, however, possible to group massage techniques into a few general categories:

monday_relaxRelaxing massage techniques: Most massage clients want to relax and/or to soothe minor muscular aches. For these purposes, Swedish massage, with the occasional judicious application of deeper pressure and stretching, is the ideal therapy. This type of work uses kneading (petrissage) and stroking (effleurage) with moderate pressure; the therapist can work deeper on the areas where persistent stress or trigger points exist. Most practitioners in the US and Canada are trained in this style of massage therapy.

Swedish massage has been shown to be effective in relaxation and pain relief and, as such, is good for a wide array of physical complaints including insomnia, depression, ADHD, pain and soreness associated with injury rehabilitation, arthritis and the aches and pains of day­-to-­day living.

Swedish massage is also indicated in mood elevation and can be extremely useful in conjunction with treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction and age­-related deficits.

deep-tissue-massageDeep pressure therapies: Deep tissue massage goes hand­-in-­hand with sports therapy and is often used in aiding the body’s natural healing processes in the restoration of movement and relief of pain. Such therapists often work in conjunction with (or at least in communication with) the client’s chiropractor or physician. Many of these practitioners also use trigger point therapy to work out dense, immobile spots in muscle tissue that frequently result from overuse. Deep work usually relies on very heavy pressure as well as stretching and the application of heat or cold during the work. As a result, it is not as relaxing as regular Swedish massage and may be a bit uncomfortable while being performed.

foot_massageFriction massage: This is a therapeutic massage technique which is often used to help restore movement to muscles and joints. It has been shown to be effective in pain relief and helping to reduce the effects of scarring as well. Typical Swedish massage frequently employs friction and most massage therapists are familiar with friction techniques.

Caduceus000Medical massage techniques: These techniques treat specific medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Massage for pregnant women or infants, or techniques for the relief of lymphedema are two further examples. Such therapeutic techniques are very exacting and many of them require specialized training. A therapist may advertise knowledge of such techniques or will be able to tell a client about them on the phone or upon initial consultation.*

antahkarana-spiral-of-spiritual-illumination-energy-energyenhancement-orgEnergy work: These therapies (including
qi gong, tuina, reiki, polarity therapy and many others), while grouped under the heading of massage, are frequently not involved in the actual manipulation of soft tissue. Energy practitioners believe that they can make use of touch and breathing to focus energetic currents inside the human system and thus bring about therapeutic effects. While some of these techniques are well-­regarded (even by some medical practitioners), they remain controversial. The many different types of energy work and their purported effects and uses are outside the scope of this article. Suffice to say, if you are looking for a massage, going to an energy worker may well be a disappointing experience for you.

ThaiTherapyDrawingNon­standard massage techniques: There are literally hundreds of techniques that do not fall into any of the above categories. Rolfing/Structural Integration (which uses gravity and postures, and may be more closely related to chiropractic work), acupressure and reflexology (which incorporate pushing on tiny spots which may be able to have profound effects on the entire body), sports massage (which incorporates stretching, heat and deep tissue techniques), Thai Yoga Massage (which uses very athletic stretching in combination with massage), Trager (which uses rocking, stretching and jostling extensively) are just a few examples of the many and varied types of therapies that are available. Interested massage clients should ask the therapist what techniques she or he has studied and get a good, thorough explanation of each technique. Note that therapists who are well-­trained in some of these unusual modalities command a premium price!


*If you have a condition which you think massage may be able to help, speak with a physician to see if there may be techniques that can help you. There are, however, a few doctors who lump massage in with quack cures. These professionals, likely put off by the ridiculous claims that a small number of therapists have advanced, dismiss all massage out of hand as useless (or worse). If massage interests you, you may have to be persistent and get a second (or third) opinion.


How to Receive a Professional Massage, Part 1

(This multi-part article is reposted from my work at Everything2. There’s more to know and that will be coming in the next weeks!)


Lumster Photo

Touch is more than the physical sense of reaching with your hand and coming into contact with an object or person. Touch is also communication. Touch is association. Touch is the sense of belonging or connectedness within a society. — Denny Johnson, from Touch Starvation

About eight years ago, I injured my lower back. I was unable to stand up straight without a great deal of pain and walking was only accomplished with a cane. At 35 years old, I felt like a broken-down old man. After he was certain that the discs in my spine were intact, my physician recommended stretching and massage therapy. Two intensive deep tissue massage sessions later, the pain was nearly gone and my back seemed to work better than it had before the accident.

Getting a massage can be an astonishing experience. Even to the person who has enjoyed hundreds of them, there is a certain “wow” factor as your body remembers just how amazing a good massage feels.

The benefits of receiving massage are not only physiological but also psychological and emotional as well. Massage therapy loosens tight muscles, improves circulation, removes stress, eliminates kinks and trigger points in muscles and increases overall range of motion and flexibility. It also improves mood, relaxes and calms the individual and as a result may attenuate such conditions as depression, grief, anxiety and the like.

The general advantages of having stress levels lowered and the muscles tuned up are pretty easy to see. After a massage, you will feel better, and thus walk with better posture, sit more comfortably and have fewer generalized aches and pains. These effects may last for several weeks! Massage therapy can be very beneficial for persons who suffer from chronic conditions which cause muscular discomfort, including fibromyalgia, writer’s cramp, tennis elbow, plantar fasciitis, and osteoarthritis. Additionally, massage reduces fluid buildup in tissues (such as puffy ankles or the swelling associated with exercise) and can improve blood flow to (and from) various areas. There is some evidence that massage on the abdomen may aid digestion and elimination and overall massage may help remove toxins (such as the metabolic byproducts of hormones, salts, and creatinine) from tissues, speeding them back into the blood stream for elimination from the body.

There is a substantial body of evidence to support the claim that massage is very effective at stimulating the immune system. As a result, many care givers are recommending massage for patients with depressed immune systems, either from prolonged illness or from stress, lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition or immune-compromising sicknesses.
Massage excels at changing the client’s mood for the better. Massage therapy is frequently recommended by physicians, psychologists and therapists for patients who have are suffering from affective disorders such as SAD and postpartum depression. Massage can be soothing or invigorating, and as such it can also be very effective for anyone who is feeling stressed, lacking in energy or feeling ‘down in the dumps. A number of clinical studies have also shown that massage can be very useful in combating insomnia, ADD and ADHD, as well as PMS.

Massage works its magic in a number of ways. The action of stroking and kneading muscle tissue and surrounding connective tissue unbinds tight spots, works out immobile portions and enhances circulation of blood and lymph in the area. Simply rubbing an area can have a demonstrable analgesic effect (which is likely why one might rub an elbow after smacking it on a table, for example).

Also, it is hard to overstate the importance of touch. Simply touching another person, and being touched by them, can have a soothing and calming effect on our emotional and mental states. These factors add up to a very pleasant and healthy experience.

The prospective massage client should beware: there are a few (very few, fortunately) irresponsible (or grossly misinformed) massage therapists who will make unsupported claims about the efficacy of massage therapy. Among other things, some may claim that massage therapy may reduce the likelihood of cancer, reverse the effects of leukemia or of autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus), cure asthma or many other (equally improbable) things. Such claims have not been substantiated by research. The best defense against such claims is education. Massage magazine (to name only one) has a terrific on-line library of medical research related to massage and touch therapy. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it very likely is!

Since my accident, I have gone on to make a career of massage therapy—trying to give back as good as I got or some noble sounding thing like that. I have heard dozens of testimonials like my own: people whose constant headaches made life miserable, a woman who swears massage therapy saved her from surgery, a 75-year old man who credits his light gait and excellent posture to massage therapy, and many others.

One of the best comparisons I’ve heard is this: having a massage is a lot like getting a good night of sleep; you may not realize that you needed it, but once you get it, the difference is amazing.


The information in this article comes first-hand from my own professional experience (and that of many colleagues). 
Scientific and medical information has been gathered from literally hundreds of research synopses, mostly published in the magazine Massage.

Additionally, I referred to many testimonials from my clients and my own massage school notes.
 Massage therapy is not a substitute for the care of a physician, psychologist or therapist.