A Sermon on the Science of Massage

This isn’t one of my rants about massage research–although that’s definitely a sermon I plan to keep on preaching. It’s about the basic things that we all ought to know, if we’re calling ourselves massage therapists.

I love anatomy and physiology, and the study of pathology is fascinating to me. The human body is an amazing thing, and the more I know about the way it works, the more competent and empowered I feel to do a good job as a massage therapist. Sadly, that sentiment isn’t shared by everybody.

I’ve been tutoring students and teaching my class in how to pass the exams for over ten years. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has said to me “I just want to do massage. Why do I need to know this stuff?” A few weeks ago, I actually had someone who has graduated from massage school (but not yet passed their exam) ask me where the trapezius is located. I didn’t know whether I should feel sorry for them at their lack of education, or whether to give them a swift kick in the butt and point out how lazy they must be not to know this by this time.

Due to the lack of regulation in some places (there are still 8 states where anyone who wants to may call themselves a massage therapist with no education at all), and the time-honored tradition of grandfathering people when legislation does come in, there are thousands of people practicing massage who know nothing of the sciences associated with it.

Massage is an art form, to me anyway, as well as a science. And I’ll concede that there are people who can give an amazing massage that don’t know what the trapezius is. But the fact is, I don’t want a massage from any of those people.

If I go to get a massage and say “It hurts when I do this,” I feel much better about getting it from someone who knows what muscle does that. If I make an appointment for a hot stone massage, and then put on the intake form that I am suffering from a severe case of peripheral neuropathy, I’d like for that therapist to know that I shouldn’t be receiving that type of massage. If I’m taking muscle relaxers, I’d like for the therapist to know that my muscle reflexes are inhibited and my sense of pain tolerance is dulled, and that therefore a lot of deep thumb work could leave me bruised and feeling battered. If I have a raging case of shingles, I’d feel better knowing that the therapist would send me back home without a massage. I might have walked in the door as an uneducated member of the public thinking that a little cream spread around on me would make me feel better. I’ve had that happen during my career.

I don’t know everything there is to know–yet.  But I’m happy to say my education didn’t stop at the massage school door. It’s never over, and it will never be over. That doesn’t mean I’m sitting around reading an A&P book cover to cover for entertainment, but I figure the more I know about it, the better I become. When a client comes in and mentions a condition I’ve never heard of, or that they’re taking a drug I’ve never heard of, I’m going to take five minutes to look that up before I put my hands on them. When I can help someone by showing them a stretch, or giving them a few hints about how their body mechanics or the ergonomics in their work space can be involved in their pain, I’m empowering them to feel better and improve the quality of their daily living.

There are some brilliant minds in this profession, and the way I see it, they’ve gotten where they are not because they give a fabulous massage, but because they have knowledge. I made a FB comment one time about the way something works, and no less than Erik Dalton corrected me. I’ll defer to him in a heartbeat. It will take me years to know everything he knows, and he’s been at it a lot longer than I have. And even though he’s making a few noises about retiring to Costa Rica, I don’t think the day will come when he decides he knows enough. He’ll be basking in the tropical sun reading a fascia journal.

I’m never going to be the next Erik Dalton, and chances are you aren’t aspiring to that, either. But I think the burden is on us, as professionals, to soak up the science of massage like a sponge. At a minimum, knowing not just the names of a few major muscles but of all of them, along with their origins, their insertions, and the actions they perform. At a minimum, having an adequate pathology and drug reference handy or Internet access for looking those things up–and actually doing so–in our work spaces.That act alone will cause you to learn something new every day and it will only take a few minutes. That’s my sermon for today.

Get over the idea that only children should spend their time in study.  Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life. ~Henry L. Doherty

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