In the lounge at the school where I teach, someone posted an article with this headline:
“Not Just Relaxing, Now Massage Wants to be Medicine”
This kind of pissed me off. It seemed patronizing to me, written in the same voice you would use to say, “Oh, look at the kitty sleeping on the pillow! She wants to be people.” The headline struck me as another example of people failing to understand the real physical and psychological health benefits of massage. Even with all our hard work, education, and growing acceptance of the profession, too many people think of what we do as “rubbing up on people,” or something similarly frivolous.
Today, AMTA of Illinois started a discussion on their Facebook page. The question was whether we thought there should be a separate career path/certification for medical massage (as opposed to relaxation massage.) my first thought is that this would be a great idea. I envision massage therapy as a 2-year Associate’s degree program, and medical massage as a 4-year Bachelor’s. If we want to be taken seriously for the real health benefits of our work, we need to take our training seriously. Our entry level needs to be higher, with deeper understanding of anatomy, kinesiology and pathology. I say this with the complete awareness that my education, and that of the students I teach, is not up to these standards.
If we “want to be medicine,” though, we need to act like it. First, we should read and perform research. We all need to become familiar with the scientific process and the rules of evidence as part of our basic education. If you are a massage therapist, and you see an article about massage in the popular media, you should be able to trace the information to its source and evaluate its impact on your practice. Example: a recent article in the New York Times talked about a study suggesting that massage does not clear lactic acid from the muscles after exercise, but does have a beneficial effect on inflammation. I found the study, and found that while the conclusions were intriguing, the sample size was small and limited (<30 healthy, college-aged males.) Its findings were not, therefore, directly applicable to my work with a frailer, more diverse population — yet.
Second, we need to get our professional act together. We need to stop accepting a certain level of “flakiness” as part and parcel of the massage therapist personality. Show up on time. Be mindful of session start and end times, and for Strunk and White’s sake, learn how to write. I realize I may appear a little old-fashioned in that last point. I will continue to insist, though, that business emails should follow the same rules of grammar and diction as business letters. Further, we should endeavor to learn to speak to clients in language that is compassionate, appropriate, and instructive. While it is fine to talk to our clients in laymen’s terms, or even to use humor and metaphors to illustrate an area of concern (“Your shoulders love your ears so much, they can’t be separated”), we must follow that up with real information. (“Your levator scapula muscle elevates your shoulder. It attaches here. Notice what you feel like when I work in this area, etc.”)
Third, we need to unite. Massage therapy can be a lonely profession, especially if we work for ourselves. You spend most of your time working alone with your clients, and while that builds a rich and rewarding therapist-client relationship, it does not enhance your professional soul. We need to make getting involved in our professional organizations a priority. If we can’t attend conferences or serve on committees, we can take time to chat with other therapists over coffee, or exchange research with each other over email. We don’t work in a vacuum, as much as it feels like we do. The way I work with a client affects that client’s view of all massage therapists, for good or ill. Regular contact with other therapists helps us form the terms by which we define our profession.
And finally, we need to maintain our unique compassion and mindfulness with our clients. I got into this profession because I wanted to work directly with people. I wanted the leisure of an hour or more to really focus my attention on an individual and work with them to find their wellness. We use touch as our primary tool, which makes our connection with our clients unique. We need to cultivate and respect that connection, and reinforce it with knowledge.