Is Therapeutic Massage Right for Me?

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Massage can help treat symptoms of many illnesses and conditions, but not all treatments are created equal.

When Phoebe Holmes’ adult daughter with special needs experienced a fall, Holmes caught her, preventing her daughter from suffering any physical injury. Holmes, however, was not so fortunate. Her shoulder burned with pain, and so she sought medical attention. Initially, she was sent for an MRI to ensure there were no tears in the shoulder, but when the results came back clear, her chiropractor diagnosed her with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a type of arthritis that causes inflammation, and suggested therapeutic massage. “I started once a week, and then as my shoulder healed, moved once every two weeks,” Holmes said. Regaining the non-painful use of her shoulder was very necessary for Holmes who continues to care for her daughter.

Holmes’ injury is one of many conditions that therapeutic massage can treat. According to Suki Baxter, CR LMT LAMT, a licensed massage therapist, the most common conditions she treats are lower back pain, neck tension and pain, plantar fasciitis, and many posture-related issues. “I also have clients who deal with autoimmune conditions such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, and Multiple Sclerosis,” Baxter says. While some of her clients find Baxter on their own, she receives many referrals. “Doctors and surgeons often refer patients to me for massage and/or bodywork.”

Baxter notes that the risks of therapeutic massage are pretty low, but warns against massage for those with recent injuries as well as medical conditions. “Anyone who has been diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis — blood clots — should absolutely get clearance from a medical doctor before seeking massage treatment.”

Therapeutic massage can be used to help treat a number of physical and mental health conditions, but patients with blood clotting disorders, burns, wounds, or fractures should steer clear of this treatment as it could cause further damage. While massage should leave you a bit sore the day after treatment, massage should never be painful. If you are receiving a massage and experiencing pain, immediately alert your massage therapist so that he or she may adjust the technique. Always consult your primary care physician before beginning massage therapy, particularly if you have underlying health conditions or you are currently pregnant. Therapeutic massage is a wonderful treatment tool in the right hands but should only be utilized under the direction of medical professionals.

Therapeutic massage can also be used to treat non-physical conditions as well. When Melanie Keeton was diagnosed with postpartum depression and enrolled in an outpatient program, therapeutic massage was a regular part of her treatment. “Therapeutic massage reduced stress and aided in a feeling of safety, so my caregivers timed it to be right before or after individual therapy,” Keeton says. “By using the massage right after therapy, I was able to slowly return to normal instead of unnecessarily dwelling on what we talked about in the therapy session.”

According to Tracy Bradley, a licensed massage therapist with more than 15 years of experience in the field, research on the treatment of anxiety and depression through massage is mixed. “There is a ton of unreliable research with claims to many things, but the best, most accurately done research is usually inconclusive.”

According to this 2010 study published in Depression & Anxiety, the official publication of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, patients who utilized massage improved at the same rate as those utilizing other treatments. The study did conclude, however, that massage therapy was more financially feasible than other treatment options and therefore a viable treatment plan for those restricted by budget. According to the study, “Because the relaxing room treatment is substantially less expensive than the other treatments, a similar treatment packaged in a clinically credible manner might be the most cost effective option for persons with GAD (general anxiety disorder) who want to try relaxation-oriented CAM (complementary and alternative medical) therapies.”

While all insurance policies vary, many do offer coverage for therapeutic massage. Bradley says, “Worker’s Compensation and Personal Injury cases tend to be easier to get coverage or payment.” According to Baxter, while coverage always depends on the insurance plan, practitioner, and modality, coverage is more likely if the client has a referral from a medical professional. Baxter recommends contacting the practitioner before any appointments to confirm their insurance policies, however, since many do not bill insurance companies directly. “Due to low reimbursement rates, [the practitioner] may provide the patient with a coded superbill that they can submit on their own for reimbursement from their plan,” she says.

Therapeutic massage helps treat many medical conditions. But before seeking massage therapy, patients should always consult a medical professional for their expert opinion. Additionally, ask your doctor for recommended providers who will best address your specific needs. When choosing a massage therapist, always do your research. In some states, there is no licensing requirement necessary for calling yourself a massage therapist, but those who practice therapeutic massage should have completed education and training in the field in order to best help you. Talk to any potential massage therapists about which modalities they practice: if you need help recovering from an injury your needs will be different than someone seeking assistance in dealing with anxiety. Even after your first appointment, your relationship with your therapist should be a comfortable one. You should feel capable of openness and honesty with your massage therapist, since therapeutic massage is an intimate and personal experience. Effective treatment hinges on your comfort level! Don’t be afraid to move on if the first therapist isn’t a good fit.