Self-care for massage therapists, part 1

I’ve been doing 16-20 hours of massage per week lately, mostly Swedish but also a little deep tissue work. (I’m still getting up to speed on ashiatsu.)

The up side? I burn a lot of calories so I can really dig in at the table (one of life’s sweet pleasures), and I sleep well, being physically fatigued, another sweet by-product. And of course I’m the richer for it, in money, skill, connections, and making a difference.

The down side is that such physical work can take a toll on my body. I understand why a lot of massage therapists get burned out and leave the profession. From my fingers to my spine, I have felt achiness, inflammation, swelling, tenderness, stiffness.

Luckily, I belong to a group on LinkedIn, the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP). I joined to keep up with discussions about the profession. One person not long ago asked the following question:

What do you do for your hands when they ache after giving a series of massages? I am using proper body mechanics. My hands ache. I appreciate your feedback.

There were 55 responses that I’m going to summarize, because I feel so grateful to have this resource. Thanks to all the MTs who responded.

Please note that many of these are new to me; I am just summarizing what people posted. Later I will post what’s worked for me (that I’ve tried so far) along with a few of my own discoveries.

Recovery time

  • scheduling days off to recover
  • taking a 30 minute break after 3 hours (or however long works for you)
  • taking adequate time between clients to recover
  • not scheduling deep tissue sessions back to back

Body mechanics, stretching, strengthening, and recovery

  • paying attention to how you use your hands on your days off
  • doing hand stretching and strengthening exercises
  • resting in semi-supine position to open the brachial plexus (on your back, knees up, feet flat, book under head for 15-20 minutes)
  • paying even more attention to body mechanics as you work
  • getting a colleague to observe you work and give feedback
  • stretching after each client
  • lifting weights to strengthen arms and hands
  • punching a punching bag (with training)

Therapeutic devices

Heat and cold

  • dipping hands into hot wax/paraffin bath
  • applying hot and cold hydrotherapy
  • dipping hands into ice water


  • getting regular massage yourself
  • stripping your own forearm muscles
  • getting Reflexology on your hands or doing it yourself
  • learning Trager self-care movements for the hands
  • getting myofascial release work done on your arms
  • this page describes how to release wrist trigger points
  • this page describes how to release tennis elbow
  • cupping with suction cups

Delivering massage

  • working within your limitations (i.e., telling clients you don’t do full body deep tissue work)
  • reading the book Save Your Hands!
  • switching to Trager
  • learning Reiki so the energy goes only one way
  • learning Bamboossage, Ashiatsu Oriental bar therapy, or floor Ashiatsu to deliver deep tissue work
  • use alternating areas of the hand/forearm/elbow in moderation
  • having a box of tools available (balls, bamboo sticks, knobbers) to use on clients’  tough spots
  • using Art Riggs’ techniques for deep tissue work
  • using your forearms instead of hands whenever possible
  • using cupping
  • applying hot towels to client
  • holding thumbs tight against hand and using body to push for static pressure point work
  • using the edge of your hand or base of palm area instead of thumbs for sweeping or kneading motions

Oils, herbs, creams, gels, minerals

  • applying essential oil of rosemary for warming or peppermint for cooling (add to jojoba oil)
  • applying oils that are anti-inflammatory: helichrysum, frankincense, German chamomile, Cape chamomile, katrafay, and ginger
  • applying oils that are analgesic: lemongrass, clove, litsea cubeba, peppermint, wintergreen, and eucalyptus citriodora
  • combining anti-inflammatory and analgesic oils; applying them to neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, and feet to relieve hands
  • applying St. John’s wort oil, white willow tincture, fresh turmeric tincture, comfrey fomentation, raw apple cider vinegar fomentation
  • using arnica cream
  • applying Biofreeze
  • applying magnesium oil or gel
  • soaking in an Epsom salt bath
  • soaking your hand in lukewarm or cold water with a minimum amount of salt

Diet, teas, supplements

  • staying hydrated
  • changing your diet to lower inflammation (no details given)
  • drinking coconut water
  • drinking a blueberry smoothie
  • eating cucumbers with sea salt
  • avoiding eating sugars, nightshades, baked products with flour and corn
  • avoiding caffeine
  • taking turmeric internally
  • drinking comfrey tea
  • taking supplements for joint health (no details provided)
  • taking MSM with glucosamine

Body care tools make great gifts!

When you are considering gifts to give during the holiday season (or for birthdays or special occasions year-round), here are some recommendations from a professional bodyworker. All of these relax, relieve stress, release tension, and enhance well-being. Who doesn’t want that?

First of all, please consider giving your loved ones gift certificates for massage. There are many modalities available ranging from Swedish to Ashiatsu to craniosacral to hot stones and more. This is a great way to show love — by surprising your loved one with a health-giving, rejuvenating, relaxing massage.

Your loved one will love you for it, and you’ll enjoy their relaxed, post-massage company even more!

Plus, supporting a private practitioner keeps the money in the local economy, so you’re being generous twice.

Here are my recommendations for tools that bring relief between massages:

  • Therapeutica Sleeping PillowThe Therapeutica Sleeping Pillow helps side sleepers keep their heads aligned with their spines while they sleep and encourages healthy back sleeping by providing nice curves for neck and head alignment. It is designed to reduce snoring and to relieve TMJ pain. Comes in five sizes based on shoulder width.
  • Check out the smaller Therapeutica Travel Pillow if your loved one travels a lot.
  • The Sacrowedgy is designed to be placed under the sacrum while you are lying on your back. It can relieve sciatica, back pain, piriformis syndrome, and more. Massage therapists and bodyworkers know that the keys to activating the parasympathetic nervous system (opposite of fight or flight) lie in pressing nerves at the occiput and/or the sacrum. This device cradles the sacrum similar to placing a hand under it, the way we often hold infants. Very calming and relaxing! Sized to fit male and female sacrums. Makes a nice stocking stuffer.
  • Place a Still Point Inducer under the occiput when you are lying on your back. Just as the Sacrowedgy induces relaxation via cradling the sacrum, the Still Point Inducer calms by cradling the occiput. A “still point” is a pause in the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid that results in better functioning of the central nervous system. Inducing a still point can relieve headaches and eye strain, lower blood pressure, and enhance the immune system. Craniosacral therapists induce the still point manually. You can do it yourself at home with one of these.
  • neckpillowA flaxseed pillow shaped to fit your neck and shoulders can be heated or chilled as needed for stiffness and pain. Better yet, get two of these! Freeze one and microwave the other, and then alternate heat and cold on your neck and shoulders for some wonderful circulatory and metabolic stimulation. Comes unscented — add your own fragrance if desired. Lavender is always relaxing.
  • TPWBThis item might inspire a New Year’s resolution! The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies shows where to find trigger points  and describes how to release them in layman’s language. (Third edition is recommended.) If regular deep tissue massage is too expensive and you and your partner or friend suffer from trigger point pain and limited range of movement, this book is a fantastic resource. You’ll also need an inexpensive tool, such as a knobble or maybe a back buddy. If you and your partner or friend are able to spend time weekly helping to find and release each other’s trigger points, you’ll both feel so much better by the same time next year!
  • spine alignerThe wooden Spine Aligner does just that. You lie on it, on a bed or cushioned surface at first, then on the floor when your body has adjusted. Rest the two central knobs between two vertebrae starting between your shoulder blades. Lie back on it for 10 breaths, then roll it down between the next pair of vertebrae, take 10 breaths, and so on, all the way down to L5-sacrum. The Spine Aligner relieves kinks and misalignments in the back, like you get when you sleep in a strange position or on a strange bed and wake up with a spasm-y, crick-y back. You can even put a knobby end under a glute for a nice tension-relieving stretch that definitely works some pressure points. You can roll the corrugated parts with the soles of your feet for a nice foot massage.

Some body care gifts you can make at home without spending a lot of money:

  • Two tennis balls tied in a tube sock. If your loved one’s car does not have built-in lumbar support, and he/she spends much time driving, you can easily make this simple gift. Put two tennis balls into a man’s tube sock. Tie a knot at the open end to keep the balls from coming out. They’ll place the sock behind their low back while driving, with a ball on either side of the spine. They can press into them, giving the low back a nice little massage.  Good for between the shoulder blades, too. This is  great on long car trips and to relieve the stress of driving in rush-hour traffic!
  • Scented bath salts. Buy Epsom salt in bulk at the grocery store, pharmacy, Costco, or online. Measure two cups of Epsom salt into a 16-oz. glass container. Add an essential oil such as lavender, chamomile, orange, sandalwood, rose, or peppermint for different effects. Stick an attractive label on the jar identifying the scent and include instructions to dissolve in a hot bath and soak for at least 12 minutes.
  • Make your own gift certificates for foot, hand, or scalp massage, or a back or shoulder rub. No training is needed, and 15-30 minutes keeps it at a good length to be effective but not tiring for you. Ask the recipient to tell you what they especially enjoy, and deliver that.

Taking care of your body, and helping your loved ones take care of theirs, is the essence of healthy living. Body care gifts create good will and make the world a better place, because people who feel great do great things!