How to Massage at Home
Is it Safe to Receive a Massage?
Tips from a Massage Therapist
Over the last 10 years as a massage therapist I've never had someone ask me if it was o.k. to receive a massage. When I've denied clients massage due to a medical condition some graciously understand, others have begged me to change my mind, and a few have found another therapist. I don't think people take us as seriously as they should.
Before giving or receiving massage it is important to understand how massage affects the body. For some medical conditions massage techniques have to be tailored to the condition or eliminated altogether. A blood clot, thrombus, is a perfect example. Clots are typically found in veins and veins increase in diameter as they travel back to the heart, so there isn't much resistance to slow them down. A dislodged thrombus traveling through the circulatory system is called an embolus. Blood returning to the heart from the body is pumped directly to the lungs where it is re-charged with oxygen. In this case the embolus will become lodged in the lungs causing a pulmonary embolism. Yes, I do know someone who's co-worker had a pulmonary embolism after receiving a massage. Now that I have your attention, I'll outline the basics. If you're ever in doubt about giving or receiving a massage please consult your physician or massage therapist.
The technique I think most people are familiar with is swedish massage. In laymen's terms I would describe it as continuous rubbing strokes of varying pressure. So, how does this basic technique affect the body? Any massage strokes that involve rubbing will increase circulation. As circulation is increased cellular metabolism will also increase. An increase in metabolism will use more blood oxygen and glucose. Both are important to consider for those with respiratory, metabolic, and circulatory conditions. (emphysema, high blood pressure, diabetes, hypoglycemia...etc)
Without fresh blood muscles are deprived of oxygen and nutrients and begin to accumulate metabolic waste. As tight muscles are rubbed and circulation increased, wastes are removed. The wastes released during massage will eventually be filtered by the kidneys, liver, and lymphatic system. If any of these systems of the body are not working properly consult a physician before giving or receiving massage. For example, if someone is suffering from renal failure a circulatory massage would be contraindicated. If the kidneys are not functioning properly before the massage takes place, a release of metabolic waste from the cells will further exacerbate the problem.
Anyone who has ever received a good massage knows all about the endorphin rush that comes with massage. For many therapists it's a sign of a job well done when a person leaves "massage drunk". During a massage the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are reduced. When a person is stressed the body produces cortisol and adrenaline to allow the systems of the body to work more effectively while under stress. Not only are stress hormones reduced, the feel good hormones serotonin and dopamine increase. Recent studies have suggested low levels of serotonin may contribute to anxiety and/or depression. 1
Professional Massage Tools
If you're a person who loves to give shoulder rubs your effectiveness will be greatly increased if the person doesn't have to hold their head up. Since muscles in the neck and shoulders support the head they will remain in a contracted state while you work on them. If the muscles are at rest they are softer and more pliable while you're working. The cheapest way to achieve the muscle relaxation you're looking for is to have the other person lie down. Most people immediately think face down is best. If you're working closer to the area between the shoulder blades I would agree. Since the person will have to turn their head to one side it can make working the upper neck and shoulders a challenge. I've always preferred working on neck and shoulders in the face up position. The head only rotates if you want it to and you get to work against gravity.
In some instances people cannot lay on their back or stomach so I would recommend an Oakworks Desktop Portal. It has the same face rest found on massage tables and chairs, but it works with any flat surface. They fold flat and come with a carrying case for easy storage. A brand new unit is about $200. The other option for a seated massage is a massage chair. Top of the line chairs are in the $600 price range, but they usually have more adjustments than the cheaper models. A less expensive model should accommodate all of your needs. I recommend keeping an eye out for used massage equipment since most includes a lifetime warranty. As long as the vinyl is intact and all parts are in working order it should last until you decide to pass it on.
Most at home therapists work through the clothes, not only does this give the other person a sense of privacy, but they also keep them warm. The downside for the therapist is it can make your hands tire if you're not constantly changing your technique. When oils or lotions are used your ability to feel the muscles will greatly increase and hands will not tire as easily. Females sitting in the chair can wear a bathing suit to maintain their modesty if you decide to try a lotion. Not sure whether to try an oil vs. a lotion? Oil will give you more glide whereas a lotion will soak in while you are working and allow for a better grip. Generally lotions are preferred by deep tissue therapists so they don't slide off the muscles they're working on. Most health food stores or those selling body products will have a large variety for you to choose from.
If you've ever given a back rub on the floor, couch, or bed you're probably familiar with how awkward it can be. If your knees don't hurt when you're finished your back probably does. For those who want to get serious about giving massages I suggest looking for a table, or possibly enrolling in a massage program. Inexpensive tables can sometimes be found at wholesale membership retailers. A table will allow you to comfortably work on the arms, legs, and back. Twin sized sets of sheets fit a table perfectly. Two select-a-size paper towels torn 3/4 of the way apart will work as a disposable face rest cover for a table or chair. For those with a green spirit a pillowcase will work as well. Fold the pillowcase in half long ways. Use one end to cover one side of the face cradle. Then simply fold over in the center to cover the other half of the cradle.
Techniques from a Massage Therapist
The most basic rule of thumb when it comes to giving a massage is to inquire about your level of pressure. Since people enjoy different things I recommend asking the recipient before you begin. This way you hopefully won't have to check in with them every 30 seconds while you're working. In a perfect world the person on the table will always tell you to adjust the pressure. What's strange is that most people don't. If the pressure is too light the massage may feel ticklish or have a temporary numbing effect. Deep pressure is more likely to physically hurt someone if you're not careful. The two most common signs the pressure is too deep are:
- The recipient will hold their breath.
- They will contract the muscles in the area you're working.
Those who love deep work sometimes insist on deep pressure with the first massage stroke. However, immediate deep pressure usually does more harm than good. Muscles have stretch receptors that constantly monitor the tension in the muscle. A tight muscle is already under tension and immediate deep pressure greatly increases the tension within the muscle. As a protective mechanism the body responds by tightening the muscle further in hopes to prevent muscle tearing. This will make the knot bigger than when you began. If you ever had a sibling or friend who would punch you in the shoulder or side of the leg to create a "charley horse" you know what I'm referring to.
Initially it is best to knead the area and increase local circulation before beginning deeper work. An increase in circulation will make it easier to flush the muscle with nutrients as you work through the muscle layers. Sometimes you'll feel the muscles begin to soften with simple kneading strokes which is easier on the therapist and recipient. As you begin to work deeper slow down the speed of the strokes. I've been the recipient of a deep and fast massage and ended up feeling as if I had been beaten up. In that case I didn't say anything because I was the instructor receiving a massage in the school clinic from a student. Typically I would wait until the end of the massage to give my critique.
If you're going to work deep it is important that you listen with your hands. You can accomplish a great deal with a few, slow, purposeful strokes than you can with 100 fast ones. For those with muscle atrophy quick strokes are excellent for building muscle tone. When the muscles are already tight fast strokes will prevent the muscle from relaxing. If you decide to work deep, gradually increase the pressure and when you meet a barrier of resistance hold that spot for a few seconds. In most cases the muscle will begin to unwind and then you simply follow it. In cases of tight, fibrous, and sometimes crunchy muscles you may need a different technique if the muscle isn't releasing.
For stubbornly tight muscles apply pressure gradually until they feel the "good hurt"; it may hurt a little, but the pressure still feels good. Sometimes the pain sensation will be local but it is also very common to feel the pain somewhere else. When the pain is referred to another area of the body it is called a trigger point. Tough, tight muscles usually develop these points. Fortunately, muscles develop trigger points in approximately the same place on everyone. In my practice I have found the following guide to be extremely helpful.
Keeping the pressure constant the pain sensation should diminish. If the pain does not subside after about 30 seconds do not proceed further. In the instance where the pain does not gradually disappear something more serious is most likely present. Continuing deep work will most likely make it worse. When the pain does subside gently apply a little more pressure to bring it back to the good hurt and let the pain diminish again. Repeat the process 3 times without reducing pressure or taking your hands off the recipient. Congratulations! You have just worked a trigger point.
As long as the recipient is healthy, the style of massage given shouldn't matter much. Find a technique both the giver and receiver enjoy. There are numerous massage videos and books. YouTube offers a wide variety ranging from watsu, bamboo, and even snake massage. Work safely and have fun.
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