Rubbed the Right Way

The questions to ask if you’re looking
for a massage therapist.

January 2009

The chronic pain in Kirby Thompson’s neck and back started with an accident when he was a teenager and worsened with time. “I saw orthopedists but they could only offer me medicine,” says the Seaford, New York social worker, now 54. “Chiropractic offered some relief but I had to go two or three times a week.”

Thompson went for professional massages on occasion, and they were helpful. But then he found his current therapist—Kristen Sykora, LMT, of Hands Down Physical Arts in Wantagh, New York—and now he couldn’t be happier. “I enjoy it so much that I’m motivated to go every week,” Thomp­son says. “I’m so much better than I ever was before. I’ve recommended Kristen to several people.”

Thompson is just one of the 39 million adults who get at least one massage a year, according to the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (www.ncbtmb.org). Besides providing pain relief, massage helps ease stress and reduce blood pressure, among other health benefits. The trick is finding the right therapist for you.

Suitable Styles
What complicates the search for a therapist are the many definitions of “massage.” The rubbing and tapping form most people know is called Swedish massage; in sports massage, the therapist blends Swedish techniques with such practices as icing and compression. Both types of massage are just two of more than two dozen, including:

Tissue—releases tension and pain through deep finger pressure and slow strokes

Myofascial Release—smoothes out the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds each muscle, through sliding strokes

Shiatsu—uses finger pressure applied to meridians, or channels of energy within the body

Thai—unblocks trapped energy through rhythmic pressure and gentle rocking motions

Trigger Point—releases pain by compressing hypersensitive points in the muscles, fascia and other tissues

Not all massage styles are suitable for all conditions and not all massage therapists are trained in all styles, so ask any prospective therapist what styles he or she practices. For instance, Sykora uses Myofascial Release on people, like Thompson, who are in chronic pain resulting from trauma—no surprise for someone who came to her present profession after receiving massage following a dance injury.
One way to find a therapist is to use the locator service at the American Massage Therapy Association’s website, www.amtamassage.org, where each person’s specialties are listed. But don’t discount word of mouth—people who are satisfied with their therapists are generally glad to share the news.

The Right Question
You and the therapist should speak on the phone before your first office visit. Brenda L. Griffith, NCTMB, who practices in Richmond, Virginia, suggests asking the following questions: “What kind of training do you have? Are you certified in this state? What type of practice do you have?” (Ask your state’s health department which agency certifies massage therapists.) In return, Griffith says, the therapist will ask, “What are you looking for from massage therapy: Stress relief? Pain relief? Injury recovery?” If you have a pre-existing condition, Sykora says the therapist should “ask how long have you been in pain and is there anyone else you are seeking treatment from.”

There’s the question of feeling vulnerable in what can be a delicate situation. After all, “you’re coming into someone’s office and disrobing,” Sykora says. Some people will wear loose clothes during a massage; others, their undergarments. Don’t be afraid of seeming silly—if you’re not at ease, “the effects of the massage won’t come out,” says Sykora. And sometimes it’s just a case of bad rapport. One therapist Thompson saw “kept telling me to relax my muscles, saying, ‘You know you can relax.’ I wasn’t comfortable.”

Your condition may also be a bad fit for a particular therapist’s skills and background. Griffith does deeper tissue work, so “if I have someone who needs lighter work I’ve referred them to other therapists.” What’s more, some conditions are thoroughly beyond a massage therapist’s scope of care. Sykora once had someone come in with a shoulder injury; the client turned out to have a torn rotator cuff that needed surgery.

When you do find the right therapist, regular massage can work wonders. “I’ve told Kristen it’s a good thing she doesn’t charge what it’s worth,” says Thompson, “or I couldn’t afford it.”
—Lisa James

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