It’s 4:00 in the morning. After tossing and turning all night, I’ve decided to just get up. My hips ache. My shoulder isn’t working right. My low back feels like someone took a brick to it. Hell, I even feel a little sick.
As some of you may know, I’m a massage therapist of 8 years. I’ve written rants about how massage shouldn’t hurt, and about how massage therapists who try to “fix” you are dumb. Yet there I lay, teeth gritted, as I got slowly tenderized. To be honest, I feel kind of embarrassed about letting it happen. I should have spoken up more. Hell, I should have stopped the massage. Sad thing is, this isn’t the first time I’ve been through this.
“I Guess It’s Supposed to Feel This Way”
Being a patient is a scary thing. You’re in a room with an expert, they’ve got years of practiced dialogue about how you should be treated and why, and all you’ve got is a vague sense of what’s wrong. When they say, with supreme confidence, that “you need this,” who are you to argue?
Over my years of psychiatric and psychological care, I’ve been told I have all sorts of things wrong with me. When my anxiety created physical symptoms (something called somatization), I was bounced from test to test, medication to medication, trying to solve illusory problems. That was kind of pricey. And stressful.
Hell, a few years ago I saw a psychiatrist who, upon hearing about my obsessive-compulsive symptoms, wanted to get me tested for Lyme disease and mono. She was convinced that all mental illness was caused by germs, and she delivered this with the same confidence that one usually reserves for predicting the sunrise.
When healthcare practitioners talk, we’ve been conditioned to listen. Over the years I’ve developed a healthy skepticism, but that didn’t help me yesterday.
“Am I… Am I Supposed to Take Off My Underpants?”
Being a patient is scary, but being a massage client can be downright intimidating. A few minutes of chatting (if you’re lucky), and then it’s naked time. Hopefully your massage therapist told you how undressed to get, and where exactly she/he would like you to be, and how much time you have. If not, the MT leaves, and you get your first crisis of the session.
Yes, despite my years in this business, I still wonder about how naked to get. Would she be more comfortable if I left my boxers on? Is he good enough at draping to work on my hips without seeing my butt crack? Dear lord, what if she sees the outline of my wang? Some massage therapists can put me completely at ease, while others would prefer to leave everything to your imagination.
So, you’ve made the crucial underpants decision, you’re under the cover, face in a dark little cave, and your MT returns. Maybe she asks about your comfort, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe he places his hands on you without saying a word. Maybe the pressure is too much.
Dear Massage Therapists,
Imagine me, the massage client. I’m bare-ass, I’ve got my face down in a claustrophobic tunnel, and you put your hands on me like you own the place. At what point do I get to… you know… communicate? You are the expert in the room, you’re the one with practiced phrases and advanced knowledge, and you’ve made it apparent that you’re none too concerned with dialogue.
At what point do I speak up? Is it when you dig a thumb tip into my shoulder and tell me to breathe, or should I wait until the pressure really starts hurting? Is it when you say “relax” as I tense up? Am I allowed to say “this is okay now, but earlier it was kind of rough?” I can guarantee you that your client doesn’t know.
Or, how about this chestnut: “How’s the pressure?” Well done. Surely you’ve done your due diligence! By asking “how’s the pressure?” and waiting for my inevitable “fine,” you’ve discovered everything you need to know about how your touch is affecting me physically and emotionally. You are a master communicator.
Not really. Step up your shit. Don’t shift the blame for a failure to communicate onto your client; the onus is on you. Being a massage client can be intimidating, and you’re not taking that into account.
Dear Massage Clients,
It ain’t supposed to hurt. It’s not supposed to be confusing or intimidating. Properly handled, massage can be an incredible congress of contact and motion, of nonverbal communication and education. My first massage was so great, I decided right then that it had to be a part of my life.
If your massage therapist has their head on straight, it will be made abundantly clear that you have the power in the relationship. You can alter the pressure at any time, speak up at any time, and even ask for changes in technique. You can end the massage if it’s not your bag.
You, not your massage therapist, are the expert on your body. You’ve been inhabiting it for decades, where your MT has seen the outside for a few minutes. You know if something’s not right, if it’s good pain or bad pain, or if an area is becoming too sensitive to receive more work. We’ve got our fallible sense of touch and preconceived notions; you’ve got first-hand knowledge.
All that said, I can’t blame you if you fail to communicate. I can’t say “well you should have spoken up!” because I know that it’s not always that easy. Sometimes the MT has moved on from the painful area already, or it’s an ambiguous “it might be too much, but I don’t know for sure…” situation. Or it just plain hurts, and you’re convinced that they know best.
Communication Above All Else
I’d like for something new to happen in the massage world. I’d like for clients, upon finding that their massage therapist is an incompetent communicator, to leave before the first contact. It’s going to be a suboptimal experience, the therapist will fail to find that “just right” pressure, and you might get hurt.
Yes, I’m telling you that it’s not up to you to lead the conversation. We expect doctors, nurses, and counselors to be decent communicators by default. They need to establish rapport, have a certain bedside manner, and they need to be able to allay certain fears. If they don’t have this, you go elsewhere and, hopefully, leave a crappy review online.
Why are massage therapists exempt?
A Word on Massage Hangovers
If you search for “flu-like symptoms after massage” on Google, you’ll find plenty of message board postings of people who feel like hell after a massage that was too deep. You’ll also find scores of massage sites telling you that you’re dealing with “toxins” that have been flushed out, or that you’re experiencing a “healing crisis.” Orwell would be impressed.
No. No no no. The “toxins” thing is just a popular meme among massage therapists because we think that we actually stimulate circulation more than a set of jumping jacks would. The body isn’t full of pockets of toxins just waiting to be freed (there are exceptions, like in bone and adipose tissue, none of which massage can affect). The body is actually quite adept at getting rid of cellular waste and pumping in fresh nutrients.
A note on the lactic acid thing: Ever do push-ups until your arms failed because of that dreadful burning sensation? That’s from the metabolism of lactic acid. Notice how you can do another set of push-ups 30 seconds later? That’s how swiftly the exchange of nutrients and wastes happens. Yes, this means that the “flushing lactic acid” thing is another massage myth.
Aside: If a massage therapist ever tells you that they’re “busting up lactic acid crystals,” either go to the doctor (you have a metabolic disorder) or never go back to that MT (they’re full of shit). And yes, this means that the “drink a lot of water” spiel is based on bad science.
So, what’s really happening during a massage hangover? The same thing that causes muscle soreness and fatigue the day after you work out. The same thing that makes you feel so shitty when you get the flu, or get hit by a truck. Oh, and it’s what causes actual hangovers to feel so bad: inflammation. This is the body’s standard, non-specific response to any insult.
So, someone decides to painfully shove their fists, thumbs, and elbows into your upper back for 45 minutes before finally moving on. You’ve just gotten your ass kicked, very slowly. That malaise and achiness you feel the next day could be a “healing crisis,” where it really means that you’re getting better and healing and sunshine and rainbows will be exploding out of your chest.
Or, as Occam’s razor might dictate, you just got served, and you need a day or two to recover from the beating.
A Last Word For Prospective Clients
You guys, massage is great. Just don’t let anyone convince you that pain does anything other than ramp up your sensitivity to pain. Yes, even if they mention sciency sounding stuff like metabolic wastes. Yes, even if they claim it’s due to a rebalancing of your energies. It’s hogwash that they heard from all the massage therapists who hurt them.
Ever had a massage therapist completely ignore your pain threshold? Think I’m full of something other than proinflammatory chemicals? Vent your spleen in the comments!