How to Choose a Massage Therapist
If you've ever been struck by the desire to get a good massage, you may have noticed something: There seem to be more massage therapists than there are humans on this planet. Don't ask me how this is possible. Do the google search yourself and you'll see what I mean.
Massage is an attractive profession. It appeals to those of us who like anatomy and physiology, those of us who consider ourselves healers, and people who want to make more money without having to sit behind a desk. All of the above apply to me, and any of these motivations can belong to an excellent muscle squeezer. Sadly, they might also belong to someone who should not be allowed access to sharp objects in the home, let alone another person's physical well-being.
How do you separate the good from the bad, the somatic geniuses from the slobs who don't know their axilla from a hole in the ground?
Regarding Light Relaxation Massages
Let's get something out of the way first: When it comes to relaxation, it's hard to screw up massage. In fact, and call me crazy, but I'd take a light Swedish massage from a loved one who has read over a trained professional any day. Why? It's free, it feels nice, and it has benefits for both giver and receiver (see the research on The Massage Bookinfant massage). If someone you care about is willing to devote a significant chunk of their time to rubbing oil on you, there's really no way for a professional to compete with that.
Trained massage therapists do have a few tricks and techniques that set them apart: knowledge of the contours of the body and how to work with them, deeply-ingrained flow, and a general sense for what feels nice. That said, these are all skills that develop by doing, so why not develop them yourself?
If you're looking for a massage with a therapeutic effect other than relaxation, things get trickier. If you have a chronic injury, a massage therapist with specific knowledge of the body and how to work with it can do wonders. If you have a particular disease state such as fibromyalgia or arthritis, the practitioner's skill can make all the difference.
Making Your Selection (Sans Dart-Throwing)
This is the tough part. How can you tell, just from Google, who is good at what they do? I'll be honest: As a massage therapist, I don't recommend massage for my friends who are in pain, because at least 50% of massage therapists are full of hot air. They may see someone good, or they may go to someone who has never read a single research article and who has never cracked a supplementary massage text, or maybe someone pumped out of one of the many "Certification Factories" that popped up to feed this industry.
Why is this such a quandary? Well, my hypothetical friend might go in with back pain, and leave with the notion that their pain is caused by knots that only the massage therapist can find, let alone treat. Or, Heaven forbid, they might leave limping and bruised, because "massage has to hurt for it to work!" There's also the chance that the massage therapist might choose to, ahem, supplement their income with various forms of hokum (homeopathy, energy healing*, MLM schemes, etc.). How can I find a grounded, knowledgeable massage therapist with a good head for therapy on her/his shoulders?
If you're looking online: Let's say you live in an area where massage therapists actually have a web presence (not necessarily the case everywhere). On their "about" page, there are certain things you should ignore:
- The healing and relaxing qualities of their massage
- Certifications in things that are either commonplace (state or nationally certified in massage/bodywork) or esoteric (level V distance healing, doctorate in aromatherapy).
- Fluff: pride in schools attended (everyone thinks their school was remarkable, myself included), marketing lingo.
Not to be ignored is the actual nitty gritty. How long has the massage therapist been practicing? Look for someone who has had at least a year of experience, preferably more. There is a lot of clinical research involving massage, which I hope to talk about quite a bit in the future. Sadly, few of these studies mention the experience and qualifications of the practitioners involved. The catch? Studies that do mention experience and qualifications tend to have much better results. See Furlan et al., 2002. Indeed, research groups only seem to mention such things when they have strict standards for participation; it can be inferred that the other groups chose to take any old slob who had a license and two working hands. Anyway, the point: experience matters when it comes to outcome. Oh, and if you're in a state that doesn't require licensure, those "commonplace" certifications mentioned above are suddenly darned important.
Look for statements regarding their healing philosophy. Are they a "no pain, no gain" type of place? Steer clear. Do they spend most of their time talking about your spirit? Maybe look for someone a bit more grounded. If they have concrete statements about how they treat pain, including modalities used (myofascial release, neuromuscular therapy, connective tissue therapy, and structural integration are all solid), then they might be taking your pain seriously.
Calling around: You might find yourself having to call a few likely places to narrow down your pick. This is much like the process above: Ask about years of experience, and about modalities in which the practitioner is proficient. Write the information down, and continue down your list.
If it's a Big Box massage place, they will likely not know much about each individual massage therapist (there can be over ten working there), so your best bet is to let them know that you're in pain, and that you're picky. They'll try to find someone who's a good fit for you, but this can be a crapshoot.
*Note: There's a lot of good to be found in "energy-focused" massage modalities. I think that these systematic ways of interacting with the body have tapped into a powerful way of evoking the placebo effect, and into the wordless language of touch. Healing over the phone, however, should be a criminal offense, punishable by no less than three days in a playground ball pit.
So I Just Saw Someone... Should I Go Back?
Let's say that you found a good candidate from google or the yellow pages. You went in, received your massage, and it was okay. Should you go back, or are there better massage therapists out there?
I'm all for the idea of trying out multiple massage therapists. There's a wide world of technique and philosophy out there, and massage is not one-size-fits-all. If you've tried one practitioner and you have the means, try another, and maybe another still. This will help you realize what you like in a good massage, and what you value in your massage therapists. Do you like a firmer touch? Are smooth transitions and flow important for your experience? Does one massage therapist blow the others out of the water when it comes to treating your pain, or in educating you?
If you can't do the buffet approach, I can at least give you some red flags to make note of when deciding whether to go back. Watch out for:
- Coercion. Some massage therapists do their best to convince you that you need them, rather than letting their work speak for itself. "Do you feel that knot? Did you feel that release? Wow, your back needs a lot of work. This is going to stay seized up unless you come back twice a week for..." Ugh. Don't let someone use the power of suggestion to overpower your reason.
- Blowing smoke. Massage therapists (and chiropractors, and naturopaths, and all manner of alternative healers) can get very good at delivering nonsense in a convincing manner. Look for smooth lines that don't quite pass the smell test ("this realigns the vortices that naturally occur in your bioelectric field").
- Magic. Is it possible that your massage therapist can project energy into your aura and balance your chakras? Can they really affect your liver function through your feet, or increase your energy levels by unblocking your chi flow? I guess. I'd prefer to have my muscles squished in an intelligent, informed manner, but that's just me.
A massage therapist worth her/his salt will be able to track down the sources of your problem, explain the physiology involved ("Poor posture can cause problems down the arms due to nerve impingement in the scalene muscles..."), and treat the issues in a way that offers reasonable relief. No miracles, no hokum, just distressed muscles getting the attention they deserve. Upon reflection, I can distill this article into three rules:
- Avoid hype.
- Look for expertise.
- Go with what feels good.
Am I being too hard on my fellow massage therapists? How did you go about finding the right bodyworker for you? Let me know in the comments section!