Is there anything better than a massage? It just plain feels good. But at the same time, it can be a very effective treatment for muscle and joint pain. The effects of massage therapy are both physiological and psychological. Massage therapy can increase circulation and flexibility, promote relaxation, and decrease stress. The purpose of massage therapy is to maintain, rehabilitate, or augment physical function or to relieve pain.1
Massage may be even more important today because we don’t really have a lot of physical touch in our society. In a world of emails, instant messaging, and cell phones, we spend less time in physical contact with people. This could be related to an increase in stress and depression in our society.
Human touch alone sets off a release of hormones under the skin that make us feel happier and better. Think of a time when you were patted on the back for a job well done, or received a hug from a loved one or friend. Touch feels good. The receptionist in my clinic often remarks how the massage clients are always so happy and relaxed when they are finished their treatments.
Humans have probably been performing massage since the dawn of time. We rub a sore muscle when it hurts. It’s an instinctive practice to massage our own sore muscles or to get someone else to rub our backs when we feel tension. Clients often remark that the self-massage and stretches that I teach them are very similar to what they had already been doing by themselves. The fact that massage is an intuitive reaction to muscle pain is a testimonial that massage therapy is a natural, safe and effective way to treat soft tissue pain.
Although there are claims that date back to 2500 B.C., one of the earliest documented references to massage comes from a Chinese medical book dated 1000 B.C. Other texts consist of works by Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.) and Galen (129-199 B.C.). There are stories of Kings and Queens using massage to relax as well as massage being used in WWI field hospitals. Today’s North American version of massage therapy is based on Swedish techniques, but also combines the practices of many ancient cultures. Despite its well-storied history, the massage industry is still considered a growing one in Canada. It is estimated that 35% of the population in Ontario uses massage therapy.2
In Ontario, Massage Therapists or Registered Massage Therapists are regulated under the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario (CMTO). The CMTO is a government body that protects the public and the therapists by setting quality and safety standards that all members must adhere to. Only members of the CMTO are permitted to use the title Massage Therapist or Registered Massage Therapist and use the letters MT or RMT with their names. When you see one of these titles, you can be confident that you are getting a highly trained professional. If they don’t use the MT or RMT name, they are not a registered massage therapist. Also, if you intend to use your extended health benefits, the therapist must be registered with the CMTO.
Massage therapists have completed a 2-3 years diploma program from a recognized massage therapy school before passing a provincial exam and are required to further their study with continuing education courses as part of the Quality Assurance Program of the CMTO. Through their schooling, they study the types of massage, the effects on various health conditions and how to treat them. They also study how to assess a client’s condition and focus heavily on related sciences that include the study of illnesses and diseases. One of the most important applications of the education is to know whether or not massage therapy is actually indicated for a client. There are many conditions in which massage may not be safe or recommended. The massage therapist’s ultimate goal must be to deliver a safe and effective treatment.
Clients often ask prior to treatment if it will be painful. The truth is that most of the techniques used are not supposed to be painful. There are a few manoeuvres where pain cannot be avoided, but these are only used when they are called for. That being said, it is not uncommon to see a client whose muscles are so tender that even light to moderate pressure can cause discomfort. In this case, the therapist must modify the pressure applied. The therapist should always work within the pain tolerance of the client and always check with the client to make sure the pressure is okay; especially when applying a technique that will be more likely to be painful or over an area that the therapist suspects may be sensitive to pain. If you experience discomfort during your massage, it is your right and responsibility to alert the therapist that you are not comfortable with what is happening. It’s your body, you are in control.
When you go to see a massage therapist, he or she will take a health history, ask several questions to try and determine what the problem could be, determine if you have any contraindications, or if any modifications need to be made during the treatment. The therapist will then perform an assessment. This could be as simple as asking you to perform simple movements progressing to more complex tests that are designed to pinpoint the specific reason for the pain. The purpose of this is to try and determine the root cause of the symptoms that you are experiencing.
Quite often, pain in one part of the body can be caused by something in a completely different area: for example, a client came to me who was seeing a physiotherapist for wrist pain. The physiotherapist was treating the wrist, but with no success. During the health history interview, I asked him many specific questions about his pain. I realized when he was describing his symptoms that the source may have been referred pain from a muscle in the shoulder. By applying a simple trigger point therapy to the suspected muscle, his pain completely disappeared – in one treatment. Needless to say, he is now a loyal client.
Once the therapist has formulated a clinical impression, he will discuss a treatment plan and obtain consent from you before starting the treatment. The therapy you receive will vary greatly from therapist to therapist. This will depend on what other modalities the therapist has studied and the experience that he has with treating that particular condition. Therapists will tend to incorporate techniques from all of the complementary modalities that they have studied. There is really no wrong way, and what works for one client may not work for another. Therapists are diverse, intuitive people who can and do use several approaches to the same problem.
People often ask how many treatments they will need. There is really no specific answer to this question. Remember the client with the wrist problem? His symptoms disappeared after the first treatment; however, most people require multiple treatments. I usually tell my clients that they should attend for a few weeks in a row and then we’ll reassess the situation and go from there. Some conditions will take longer to heal, such as a sprain. Ultimately, your body will tell you what to do. If it starts to feel better, you can cut back on your treatments. If it is still hurting, you probably need to keep going. As long as you are progressing towards a favourable outcome, the treatment plan will continue to be implemented. There are times when a treatment has been ineffective. It is important for you to communicate this to the therapist so that he can modify the approach to treatment. Each case is unique and the goal is to return you back to a state of pain-free living.
Do you need a massage? Pay attention to your body and it will tell you. Do you have any joint or muscle pain or tightness anywhere? Do you feel stressed out, or have trouble relaxing or sleeping? Do you have some type of injury or illness affecting your muscles or joints? Do you work at a computer? Practically anyone can benefit from massage therapy, even if it’s just to help you relax. If you are not sure, call a massage therapist, tell him your situation, and get some advice. Ask your doctor or another health professional. Ask someone you know who may have already used massage therapy. By choosing to see a registered massage therapist, you are choosing a trained health professional, but more importantly, you are choosing to be proactive about your health, and that is never a bad choice.