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

Self-massage

  • 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
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Bodywork and TRE update

Yesterday I learned something: there is such a thing as too much bodywork.

I had an early appointment with Chandler Collins, DC, who did applied kinesiology on me. I’d been having some nerve pain down my outer left leg. He made it feel better. That was about 20 minutes.

At 11, I had two hours with Bo Boatwright. We talked and then did some tablework. We did the stretching myofascial release on my hips, and then he spent a good amount of time doing reiki on my left sacroiliac joint. Just quietly holding. I had some shaking in my left arm. Then a lot of neck work.

That is, if I’m remembering right. You’ve heard of “sex haze”? There seems to be such a thing as a bodywork haze, because when I showed up for my appointment with Fran Bell at 1:30, she took a good look at me and could tell I couldn’t integrate much more.

She taught me an exercise using a stability ball, worked on me, woke me up to being more present. We talked, then she got out her pendulum and had me lie on the table. She checked — my chakras were still, not spinning. (Heck, I can’t tell. All I know is how open they are.)

So she did more work with me on the table, and left me there to integrate it. I dipped down into delta waves for I don’t know how long. My chakras were spinning after that, energy reaching at least a couple of feet out.

Advised me to look at tree trunks and go home and take a nap.

It has hardly ever happened that my appointments line up on a single day like that. A few times I’ve seen two healers, but never three.

You really do need time after bodywork to integrate it and get the most out of it. Take a nap or do simple things — gazing at a landscape, walking at a leisurely pace, making a salad, playing with a child, listening to music — not reading, working on a computer, or watching anything intense on TV or movies. 

~~

This morning I did the trauma releasing exercises, which I haven’t done for a few weeks.

Wow. I had an entirely new pattern come up. After shaking of legs, pelvis, arms, shoulders, and neck while lying with knees bent, soles on floor, I straightened my legs. Usually that puts an end to the shaking.

Not today.

My legs wanted to shake while lying straightened on the floor. They even came off the floor for a bit. Then they shook with my heels as pivots. My feet and legs rocked right and left in unison, like windshield wipers. They moved pointing out-in-out-in in unison. They moved forward and back in unison. Sometimes just my knees lifted and lowered repeatedly.

Some of these are Trager-like movements. (I’m barely familiar with Trager but remember that. My astrologer mentioned recently that she was certified in Trager and referred me to someone if I’m ready to experience it.)

When my body stops shaking, I lie still, not knowing if I’m done. Usually, more shaking arises.

I like to give my body the space and invitation to release what needs releasing. When nothing is forthcoming, just being still seems to give the deeper tensions time and permission to release. 

It wasn’t intense shaking when my legs were straight. The most intensity came from my arms and my legs with feet flat on floor. The rest of it was mild to moderate.

~~

I am hoping to start Level I training in TRE later this summer. After completing it, I’ll be able to do sessions with individuals.