I’m lucky. I like my job.
If I’m being honest, I chose massage therapy because it seemed easy. Previously I’d been a freelance copywriter, a job that, while creatively fulfilling, led to incessant headaches like interminable conference calls with uptight creative directors about “words for new that aren’t new” and deadlines that always seemed to be two days sooner than reasonable. Also, the periods of terrifying silence following a job, when the next gig could come by the afternoon or could come a month after eviction and starvation, made life itself a ping-pong game between an ulcer and a migraine.
But, out of terror breeds necessity, so I found myself quickly evaluating possible career options for a move towards something more manageable, if equally financially pathetic.
Massage therapy solved a few problems. At the time I started school, it was a rapidly growing industry, providing a handful of somewhat steady opportunities between franchise spas, health clubs, and no fault massages provided by PTs and chiropractors. It also was a job where conversation was not mandatory. Having a client face-down in a face cradle almost guarantees at least 45 minutes of quiet time for me to zone out and ponder the deep thoughts such as why is it called a ‘TV set’ when there’s only one and do fish ever get thirsty.
I haven’t been doing it for all that long, but there are a few common questions that I figured I could get out of the way by answering from behind the screen of the Internet, where it could possibly be picked up by a search engine and therefore cure a few of my headaches before they start.
“Can massage help with my allergies/gluten intolerance/psoriasis/incontinence/erectile dysfunction?”
No. Additionally, shut-up.
I completely understand how sometimes ailments can make life confusing and unbearable. Nobody wants IBS or a rash or ovarian cysts. But I’m not a doctor, and massage isn’t magic or medicine. Be reasonable.
Massage evolved from human grooming back in the primate social system, and it isn’t scientifically proven to do more than make us feel good. For most people, touch is nice. Sensory input can help retrain the brain, sure. But massage with oil or lotion and a Native American flute soundtrack won’t fix the fact that you shit your brains out when you eat ice cream, or sneeze when it’s hay fever season. If you want to feel better, chances are you’ll need medicine…and for that you need to see an MD. There’s a reason why massage isn’t more than a tertiary insurance throw-in, and why cigarette-smoking amateur strippers who think that twins take 18 months to be born enroll in massage colleges.
Also, you’re not gluten intolerant.
“Should I go see a chiropractor?”
I’m not one to rule out chiropractic. I’ve met an equal split of woo-peddling chiro nutjobs and level-headed, responsible DCs. But, in general, I’m not going to tell you to go ahead and seek out a high-velocity adjustment in lieu of a doctor or structural integrator, depending on the complaint.
The two sides to the chiropractic coin are traditionally-minded ones who believe that subluxations are the basis of all disease, and more modern-skewing chiros who are less rigid in their view of the spine being the literal and figurative backbone of every ailment. If you find a chiropractor that you trust, whose bedside manner is that of compassion, and who is devoid of the arrogant steamrolling that many alternative medicine practitioners wield, then I say give it a shot. But if you’re seeking out a HVLA whip-snap of your neck in the hopes of getting rid of your backache, just know that you’re risking a stroke or brain-stem injury at worst, and blowing a bunch of money at best.
Again, I’m no doctor, and I’m not going to dissuade anyone out of using a method that helps them to find relief, may it be chiropractic or chakra alignment chanting. At the same time, I’m never going to recommend a chiropractor for a client who I believe should seek out actual MD advice.
“I have sciatica…” (Close runners up: “I have a herniated disc…” and “I have carpal tunnel…”)
STOP LOOKING AT WEBMD FOR MEDICAL ADVICE.
Better yet, stop thinking that you know what’s wrong. Whether it’s the fact that you’re calling pain in your hip sciatica or a pain in your wrist as carpal tunnel, you don’t know what’s actually amiss unless you’ve been diagnosed by a medical professional. If you come in to see me for MFR or massage and you begin by telling me that you have a herniated disc, but it doesn’t say so in your file, and you’re not presenting me with an MRI, I can’t believe you. It’s not that you don’t seem honest, it’s just that I can’t treat a problem that’s just a guess.
Most of the time, regardless of the client’s complaint (or if they even have one) I treat what I find. Sure, if you say your hamstrings hurt, I’ll definitely give them a little extra attention, but chances are I’m going to spend more time trying to relieve the density, trigger points, or movement restrictions I find as I go along. Unless you’re giving me an actual diagnosis – from a doctor – your guess is literally as good as mine. You may be feeling the sensations in your body, but I can nearly equally assess what’s there from an objective standpoint.
That’s not to say I don’t welcome your feedback or guidance – I do, wholeheartedly, as it helps me give you both what you need as well as what you want – but don’t go all House on me and tell me what you think is wrong. (Chances are it’s not Lupus.)
“Do you do Reiki?”
No. And also, go fuck yourself.
Okay, that’s harsh. Go reiki yourself.
Reiki, or ‘energy work,’ is one of those feel-good ideas that many ‘holistic health’ enthusiasts and alt med practitioners claim to employ. The Flavor Aid that it’s telling you to drink is basically faith healing, the idea of channeling invisible energy, either through a series of symbols or just basic touch, in order to heal the body and the mind. It’s the purest form of woo and bullshit, in my opinion, and I can speak with some authority, as I attended a Reiki Level 1 certification some years ago just out of sheer curiosity. What it was turned out to be the loss of a Saturday and $150. I don’t recommend reiki for anything other than an eye-rolling exercise, the same way I wouldn’t recommend a Ouija board in place of a telephone.
In principle, I can understand how, in desperation, either as a result of emotional pain or physical discomfort, there’s an appeal to the idea that some sort of channeling of energy by a so-called master could be helpful. What is faith but the belief in that which cannot be seen? So if you find yourself drawn to the magical, hands-off realm of reiki, knock yourself out. Again, I’m not one to discourage people from seeking their own form of relief. But if you’re suffering from an actual illness, injury, or series of symptoms, go to a fucking doctor. Not a massage therapist, not an acupuncturist, and certainly not a chicanery wizard claiming to be a master of hands-off magical cures.
“Sometimes I foam roll at the gym, that’s good, right?”
Hmmm. At the risk of repeating myself, I’m not going to tell you not to do something that makes you feel better in your body or your brain. But, at the same time, I’ve read over quite a few compelling theories as to why it doesn’t work, enough that they’ve kept me from wobbling on a piece of hard styrofoam in the hopes of assuaging my muscular tension. Of course, there are other left-brainers who are less definitively convinced that foam rolling is a waste of time.
The way I see it, as with most things, I’m not going to tell a client to do something because it “100%” works. Even if something works for me (like these…don’t ask) that doesn’t mean it works universally. So, sure, if foam rolling helps you to feel better after a workout, go nuts! You won’t be the only one in spandex wincing as you slide your rump over a glorified PVC pipe. But will it improve your ROM significantly or permanently fix your ITB pain? Probably not.
Again, do what feels good, but go to a doctor if you suspect an actual problem. And maybe lay off your weekend warrioring until you feel back to normal.
So in conclusion, massage can be wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing better than providing a stressed out person a safe space to let go, get quiet, and possibly sleep. I truly feel like I offer something comforting and beneficial with my job (especially when it comes to the application of MFR and other more structural-integration based techniques) and it’s honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. But I don’t believe it’s medicine, and I don’t believe that any alternative medicine should supplant the guidance of an actual medical professional.
Massage, as with most things in this world, should come with a caveat: if someone’s telling you something – or selling you something – that seems too good to be true, it probably is.