Touch is such a basic human response that it may not register as a legitimate form of therapy.
Eastern cultures have a long tradition of medicinal massage techniques, but the foundation of therapeutic touch in the West began just over a century and a half ago. It was in the 1850s, when physiologist and gymnastics instructor Pehr Henrik Ling developed Swedish massage.
Many modern massage therapists still practice Ling’s form, but their skills likely include a wide range of advanced bodywork techniques such as trigger point, myofascial release, or cranial-sacral therapy. They may even be trained in massage traditions from Asia or other regions as well.
Previously viewed in the West as more of an indulgence than a viable therapy, massage has earned a new reputation in the medical community. According to Dr. Leena Guptha, chair of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), therapeutic touch now works alongside modern medicine.
“Massage therapists are being recruited into hospitals and medical centers,” Dr. Guptha said. “There are massage therapists who are working with oncology patients, side by side with a team of complementary therapists.”
Clare Martin—an NCBTMB board certified therapist who graduated valedictorian in her class at the SOMA Institute for clinical massage therapy in Chicago—is one example of a contemporary practitioner. Martin is the sole massage therapist at Purebalance, an integrative clinic 18 miles north of Chicago that includes holistic physicians, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and neurologists.
“I have had people call me a masseuse, but I correct them and say, ‘No, I’m a massage therapist.’ Masseuse is an older term, but it can mean a different thing,” Martin said.
Qualifications and Style
The first indication of a good massage therapist is proof of licensure. To obtain a license (available in 44 states), a practitioner must complete between 500 and 1,000 hours at an accredited school. NCBTMB certification represents another level of achievement, requiring more education, practice, and competency exams.
After credentials, finding the right therapist is just as much a matter of taste as it is technique. Dr. Guptha recommends having a conversation with a therapist before scheduling an appointment.
“A good rapport between the consumer and the therapist is also an essential factor in the healing process,” she said.
According to Martin, even if two massage therapists have the same training, they might approach a session in very different ways. “I like the nitty-gritty stuff,” she said. “I like to spend an hour on someone’s back, really getting to all the muscles, trying to release trigger points and sore areas.”
Moira Scullion, owner of Shungo Bodywork in Chicago and a former teacher at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy, is trained in conventional massage techniques, but over the past 16 years of practice, her style has evolved to focus more attention on the abdomen and lower back. About half of her clientele are women with fertility, menstrual, or digestive issues.
“When I was teaching full time, one of my favorite classes to teach was the abdominal class because it was different from all the other classes,” she said. “It’s not just about learning the muscles; there’s another layer. It’s an emotional piece that’s in there.”
Massage can be a rewarding career, but it can also be hard work, and massage therapists are perhaps the people who most need regular treatment for their own well-being.
Claire Davis has been a clinical massage therapist for 11 years. She works at both a chiropractic clinic and an office where she treats accountants. Her work focuses on pain management, stress reduction, and postural imbalances. But when Davis wants a treatment for herself, she seeks the spa experience.
“I don’t have any specific ailments,” she said. “But I’m a busy mom giving a lot of my energy, so I’m looking for some time to feel like I’m being taken care of.”
When Martin looks for a therapist, she wants someone proficient in the same techniques she uses in her own practice. “While a relaxation message is good and all, I have a lot of issues going on. I get kind of sore working, so I have them target specific areas,” she said.
Scullion seeks practitioners who use an eclectic approach “I really like practitioners who have a rounded palate,” she said. “They do a little bit of Thai massage or Shiatsu along with knowing their anatomy. If somebody doesn’t know their anatomy, they don’t typically give a great massage.”
Trust Yourself and Communicate
If you’ve never had bodywork before, it may take some time to figure out what you need, like, or feel comfortable with. Davis says referrals from a chiropractor or other health care providers can identify a style or therapist with a good track record, but your own inner voice is just as important.
“If you feel like something is wrong before you get on the table, it’s going to be even worse when you’re in a vulnerable situation,” Davis said. “They might be a really great therapist, but it’s just not the right fit.”
“Trust your gut,” Scullion said. “If they talk about themselves too much, that’s a red flag because the session is about you. You’re paying for it. It’s your time. It’s not about the therapist.”
Another key to a good massage is good communication. While a sensitive therapist strives for appropriate pressure and technique, a few words from the client can make it much clearer.
“I highly encourage communication when I’m working with someone,” Martin said. “You’d want to tell your dentist if the Novocain isn’t working.”