Massage is a popular treatment option for people with back and neck pain. While studies show the benefits of massage for spine pain, finding relief is not as easy as relaxing on a massage table and having your pain magically rubbed away an hour later. Taking full advantage of massage means being an engaged and active participant in the therapy.
Q: Is there a difference between the type of massage I receive in a clinical environment, spa, or health club? Does it really matter where I get a massage?
A: Before I answer this question, ask yourself what you want to get out of massage. That will provide insight into which environment you should pursue for your treatment.
While the place of massage doesn’t necessarily predict the type of massage therapist, it does offer a good indication on the specialty. For instance, some therapists seek additional education in performance enhancement (like athletic training and recovery), and those therapists often work in health clubs, gyms, or other environments that promote sports and athletic engagement. If you want to relax and be pampered, seeking out a massage in a resort or spa is a good choice. If you are seeking pain management related to a back, neck, or other medical issues, massage therapists in a clinical environment (like a chiropractic, medical, or therapeutic specific office) are more likely to be specially trained in managing spinal pain or other potentially complex issues.
My advice is to match your treatment location to what you want to get out of your massage therapy session.
Q: How can I extend the benefits of my massage therapy session at home?
A: Quite simply, don’t “check out” during your massage session. Be an active participant in the massage experience. I often hear of people falling asleep during massage, but that’s not the best way to take advantage of your time during the treatment.
Be engaged in the experience, especially when your therapist is targeting specific pain trouble spots. Notice what’s happening, and ask your therapist what you can do at home to reinforce the work they’re doing and the progress you’re making. Your massage therapist should give you strategies—either by using your own hands or a tool like a tennis ball—to access the trigger points, or self-awareness tips to help you hold the work between therapy sessions.
Q: How many massage treatments do I need to see an improvement in my back pain?
A: This is one of the most common questions massage therapists hear. No, there is no universal “dose” of massage therapy sessions that will reduce or eliminate pain. Massage works your muscle groups—and depending on your specific pain situation, it could take many regular sessions to retrain those muscle groups into healthy patterns that better withstand the daily wear and tear we put them through.
Think of it this way: How could a single 1-hour massage session undo a 15-year battle with chronic back pain? Consider how much time your pain pattern has had to accumulate. I often tell people to think of their body as a scale with two plates on either side: On one side, you have the complexity and magnitude of your pain; and on the other side, you have your efforts to reduce that pain. Several doses of massage are needed to balance the scale.
Once the muscular work starts holding for longer periods of time, you can go for longer periods between massages.
Be patient with massage. Set expectations that are realistic and reasonable—and balance that with what your pocketbook can withstand (as massage is not typically covered by health insurance). Finally, make the commitment to support the massage work you’re investing in with your other health behavior choices. Good self-care (massage or otherwise) will reinforce and help maintain the progress you make with your massage regimen.
Q: Is there a “good” or “bad” time to get massage therapy?
A: People may say there’s no bad time for a massage, but they’re mistaken. Some of the worst massages I have ever gotten were those that I arrived to just in time or directly after stressful situations. It wasn’t until middle or later into the session that I was finally able to be in the moment and engage with the work—and by then, the session was almost over. I’ve had equally self-induced negative massage experiences when I am busy worrying about being late for whatever I have to do right after the session.
In short, be mindful of when you schedule your massage session so that your time is not pressed immediately before or after your massage. For instance, scheduling an appointment at 8 a.m. on Monday so you can start your stressful work week by 9:30, may not be ideal. Consider scheduling your appointment with a time buffer prior to and after the session to allow you to prepare for and fully benefit from the massage in which you’ve invested time, money, and energy. Set yourself up for success by protecting the time before, during and after your scheduled massage.
Q: Should I tell my treating spine specialist that I’m getting massage?
A: Absolutely! In fact, a July 2016 survey by the American Massage Therapy Association found that more than 51 million American adults (or 17 percent) had discussed massage therapy with their health care providers in 2015.
Because there is not a lot of inter-professional dialogue or shared record keeping between massage therapists and other health care providers, patients/clients should take it upon themselves to link the various treatment approaches together. Ultimately, you want the care provided by your multiple health care providers to align with your overall treatment plan.
I encourage all clients to talk to their physicians about their massage therapy sessions. To really create a strong synergy between what your spine specialist recommends and the work of your massage therapist, I suggest clients ask questions to their massage therapist about their work. Essentially, ask your therapist what he or she is doing and why—and then take that information back to your spine specialist.
Expect your massage therapist to be able to describe what and why they are doing the things they are doing, so you can share that and your progress with your spine specialist. If a massage therapist cannot explain what and why they’re doing a particular technique in a particular area, you might want to consider finding a different massage therapist. An informational dialogue between you and your massage therapist should be part of every therapy session.