Massage for Spine Health: 5 Tips for Choosing a Massage Therapist

Massage is among the most popular ways to improve wellness and reduce pain. As many as 57.6 million American adults (that’s 25% of the adult population) had at least one massage between July 2015 and July 2016, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. Recent research supports the growing view that massage is a legitimate back pain treatment, offering a viable option to those who prefer not to use medications or more invasive methods to manage their spine pain.
Massage stones with the words "Body" and "Relax" engraved on themFinding the right massage therapist can be challenging, but it’s a crucial element to achieving the benefits of this treatment. To help set you up for success, I’ve included my top 5 tips for finding a massage therapist below.

Tip 1: Ask yourself what you want from massage. The first thing you should do before you embark on massage therapy is ask yourself what you want out of it. Do you want an acute back or neck problem addressed? Are you looking for a non-invasive therapy to provide long-term management of a chronic spinal condition? Are you seeking performance enhancement (this could be related to athletic performance or something as simple as helping you perform daily activities easier)? Are you simply wanting to relax and be pampered? Knowing what you ultimately want to achieve from massage is essential to finding the right therapist.

Tip 2: Match the massage location to your goals. Massage can be performed in a variety of places, including health clubs, spas, medical clinics, and your own home. While the environment doesn’t necessarily predict the type or specialty of massage therapist, it’s a great indicator. For example, if you’re looking to massage to help enhance your athletic performance, seeking out a massage therapist in a gym is a good starting point. If you want massage to be part of your back and neck pain management plan, checking out massage therapists in a medical clinic or a labeled therapeutic massage clinic may be beneficial.

Tip 3: Ask for recommendations—and then ask questions.
When seeking a quality massage therapist, recommendations are important. Talk to friends and family, look online to see what reviews say, or seek out massage therapist finder options from credible massage therapy agencies, such as the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) or the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP).

Once you’ve found a few good prospects, asking questions before your first appointment will shed light on whether this will be a long-term therapeutic relationship—or more of a one-time visit.

If you’re looking to manage a complex spinal condition, I recommend finding someone with more practice experience. Entry-level massage education programs are not able to provide in-depth education and practice opportunities for the multitude of specific and complex conditions for which people seek massage for spine pain. It is often through practice and continuing education that massage therapists are able to expand their crucial clinical thinking and treatment development expertise to address these complex conditions. Such expertise or clinical competency takes time to develop. Getting a sense of a massage therapist’s education and practice experience will help you choose a therapist best equipped to meet your needs.

Below are some questions you could ask potential massage therapists:

  • How long have you been practicing massage?
  • What’s your foundational massage education?
  • Have you had related education or practice experience? (I have known several former nurses or occupational therapists who have become massage therapists, and the fundamental knowledge from another field that they brought to their massage practice was priceless.)
  • What continuing massage education do you have?
  • How many sessions a week do you give? And, what does your schedule look like? (Consider strategically scheduling your sessions for times when your therapist is likely to be more refreshed, such as earlier in their work week or scheduled shift.)
  • Do you have specialties in any specific conditions or techniques?
  • Do you receive massage? And, if so, how often do you receive treatment? (Massage can be labor intensive for the therapist, so you may want to go to someone who keeps themselves healthy and balanced by using massage themselves.)
  • How long does it take to get a first appointment? And, how far ahead do you book sessions?

Tip 4: Don’t be turned off by a therapist’s booked calendar. If you want a long-term therapeutic relationship with a massage therapist, it may be worth waiting to get that initial appointment. A massage therapist who has a longer lead time for first appointments means they have clients who see them regularly—and that’s a great indicator for quality. Of course, you may be able to get an appointment with an excellent massage therapist without much wait, but longer lead times almost certainly mean the therapist is established and has repeat satisfied clients. One suggestion I have for people while they wait for their appointment is to go to a local massage school for treatment. This option is often less expensive, great for maintenance work, and provides opportunities for training massage therapists to develop their craft. Who knows, you may find a future therapist you could seek treatment from later.

Tip 5. Professionalism matters. Another great quality indicator is the professionalism of the massage therapist and the extent to which they model the values of a health care professional that you value—this will be different for everyone.

Questions you could consider include:

  • How do they present themselves?
  • Are they on time?
  • Do they cancel appointments?
  • Do they make you comfortable?
  • Do they listen to you and genuinely seek your input for treatment plan development, and whether you are comfortable/engaged in the work?
  • Do they take their career seriously?

Feeling at ease during your appointments and effective communication are paramount to massage success. If anything about your therapist gives you pause, it’s likely time to find someone new.

Massage: Management, Not a Cure
Massage is an excellent spine pain treatment that is gaining popularity as a complement to management strategies, or as an alternative to more invasive back and neck pain treatments. But, massage isn’t necessarily a cure-all.

In many instances, the cause of spinal pain is not going to completely go away, so massage therapy becomes more of a pain management tool rather than a fix. It is also important to consider a condition’s duration and severity when you evaluate the success of a single massage session and plan your massage approach to scheduling. Don’t think of your first massage as a silver bullet, especially when you have a complex and established pain situation. Be patient, and remember a 1-hour massage won’t solve a 10-year battle with back pain. But, with persistence and dedication, massage may safely and effectively help you reduce your pain and live better over time. You can learn more massage success tips in How to Get the Most from Massage.

Updated on: 05/31/17
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Selecting a Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health Practitioner

More people are looking into complementary, alternative and/or integrative health treatments to treat back and neck pain.
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