Massage therapy and related “bodywork” techniques are more popular than ever. Since 2010, the practice has grown in the U.S. and elsewhere. As recently as 1990, only about five percent of all U.S. residents had received a massage from a licensed professional.
By 2017, the American Massage Therapy Association reports that approximately one-third of the population has received a massage, or regularly receives bodywork services routinely offered at spas and public clinics.
Anyone who wants to make sure of getting a quality massage should visit a licensed therapist, preferably one who has at least five or more years of experience. Every U.S. state now has a board of massage therapy or “bodywork” that lists licensed therapists along with their original license date. The state websites also note whether a particular therapist has ever been sanctioned for unethical practices, like charging exorbitant fees or sexual harassment.
It pays to educate yourself about massage and the therapist before getting on a table or opening your wallet. Massage is not an inexpensive service, with some specialty spas charging upwards of $100 per half-hour for a standard session. Sports, rehabilitation, cranial-sacral, and other specialty types of bodywork can cost much more, depending upon the facility and the therapist.
Myths and Facts
More than most health professions, massage therapy is subject to large amounts of misinformation, myths, rumors and wildly inaccurate urban legends. Below are some of the more common ones, dispelled:
Myth: Massage can get rid of body fat.
Fact: Oddly, this is one of the most persistent myths about massage therapy. In fact, massage is not able, in any way, to decrease, redistribute, or lessen the amount of fat on a human body. Some people who begin vigorous exercise routines that include post-workout massage and steam baths notice a reduction in body fat over time. However, it should be noted that such cases of fat reduction are the result of long-term diet and exercise regimens, NOT massage.
It is possible to decrease muscle soreness with massage therapy, but getting rid of fat or cellulite calls for a change of lifestyle, not a session on the massage table.
Myth: Pregnant women should never have a massage due to the risk of premature labor.
Fact: About 50 years ago, this myth was common medical practice. Now, it is known that massage in no way induces premature labor. The medical profession now actively encourages most expectant mothers to receive massage to relive typical aches and pains that come with gestation. Standard relaxation massage actually helps a woman’s body rid itself of several hormones associated with stress. These days, prenatal massage is one of the fastest growing areas of the profession.
Myth: No matter how good a massage feels, the results are only temporary.
Fact: Unfortunately, this persistent myth deters many people from receiving regular massage for chronic pain, stress, and routine soreness. People who get massages regularly (about once or more per month) are less apt to suffer stiffness, work-related pain and other kinds of muscle soreness. Scientists believe that the human body responds to regular massage by, in effect, retraining the musculature to handle stress and pain in a way that decreases overall physical discomfort. It is a fact that in many ancient cultures, and a few modern ones, people give each other regular “mini-massages” to relieve pain that results from strenuous manual labor like farming.
Myth: Cancer patients should never get a massage due to the risk of “spreading” lethal cells throughout the body.
Fact: As ridiculous as that myth sounds on its surface, it is widely believed by many consumers and even a few (badly informed) massage therapists. In a way, the reverse is true. Most doctors who treat cancer patients urge their clients to visit massage therapists to decrease pain, feel better, and alleviate stress that is often a result of dealing with a serious disease.
When doctors write a massage prescription for anyone undergoing cancer treatment, the order clearly states what kind of massage might work best for the patient and whether there are any precautions that need to be taken. For example, some who suffer from cancer can only endure short sessions of massage, or need to avoid having particular body parts massaged due to pre-existing pain.
In any case, the fact is that doctors send thousands of cancer sufferers to massage therapists day in and day out. There is no risk of worsening cancer via massage.
Myth: There is really only one type of massage, but some treatments are more vigorous than others.
Fact: There are dozens of different kinds of massage, each one geared to relieve specific conditions. An experienced therapist, or your doctor, can usually recommend a particular kind of massage therapy for you. For general relaxation and stress relief, there is Swedish massage (it’s also the most common form). Deep tissue and sports massage are more vigorous, but have specific uses, and are typically done on clients who want to avoid or eliminate soreness. Rehab massage is usually prescribed by a doctor for patients who need to increase mobility and range of motion during an overall treatment plan (after a fall or vehicle accident, for example).
Myth: “No pain, no gain.” In other words, if a massage doesn’t hurt, it is ineffective. Related myth: A client should hurt the day following a massage session.
Fact: The old, and inaccurate exercise adage, “No pain, no gain,” does NOT apply to massage. While it is possible for certain types of massages to cause some physical discomfort, the vast majority of massages should cause no pain or discomfort during or after the session.
It is of vital importance to tell a therapist if you feel pain during a massage. In fact, experienced therapists will inform their clients beforehand, “Please tell me the minute you feel any pain or discomfort.” Even the world’s best massage therapist can’t intuitively know how another person’s body feels. That’s why everyone should feel perfectly at ease telling a therapist that something doesn’t feel right, or that a particular massage stroke is painful.
Myth: The more expensive the massage, the better.
Fact: Nothing could be more inaccurate. The massage business is a highly imperfect market, with some inexperienced practitioners charging high rates and experienced ones doing the opposite. Anyone considering getting a massage should ask their doctor for a referral, or call their state massage/health board for a list of experienced, licensed therapists. Call a few names on the list and find someone you’re comfortable with, who doesn’t charge excessive fees, and has at least three years of experience.
The Big Picture
Massage therapy is a legitimate treatment for many types of conditions. Unfortunately, as in any line of business, there are some unethical therapists who overcharge, promise more than they can deliver, and generally give a bad name to the profession. State boards and local law enforcement work hard to weed out these types of practitioners, but it helps for consumers to be on the lookout for hyped advertising and price-gouging therapists.
The good news is that the vast majority of massage therapists are talented health care professionals who know how to relieve a large number of ailments, sports injuries, and routine aches associated with aging. On the whole, massage therapy is both effective and affordable; it has the potential to help millions of people lead healthier, more relaxed lives.