What are the benefits of medical massage?

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I get many questions from my patients about the benefits of medical massage as an alternative treatment for pain management.

What conditions can benefit from massage treatment?

Nearly any type of pain diagnosis could potentially benefit from massage therapy. I often refer my patients for massage therapy for problems like low back pain and neck pain. Massage can offer relief from headaches and tight shoulder muscles caused by stress. I refer cancer patients who are experiencing pain or dealing with side effects from chemotherapy. Some chemo causes neuropathy in the hands and feet, and patients often see improvement in their symptoms with regular massage. Many professional athletes are in pain because of injuries, and they’re utilizing massage and acupuncture as non-pharmaceutical treatments. Both of these can be effective methods ton control pain.

Why choose massage as a treatment for pain?

Several years ago, the American College of Physicians issued updated guidelines for treating low back pain, one of the most common complaints of patients in the U.S. Their recommendations included using non-pharmaceutical options for pain treatment, which include medical massage. By trying non-pharmaceutical options for pain management, we can possibly reduce the need for opioid treatment. Other non-pharmaceutical recommendations include heat, acupuncture and manual manipulation (chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation treatments).

What training is required for massage therapists?

Licensed massage therapists in my state, Ohio, must complete at least 750 hours of training during a nine-month school year at an approved school of massage therapy. Those hours must include both theory and practice, with courses in anatomy, physiology and other subjects, as well as clinical practice. After that, they must to pass a state examination to receive their license. Each state sets their own requirements. To be classified as a medical massage therapist requires extra training. They learn to work on conditions diagnosed by a medical professional.

What should you look for in a massage therapist? 

First of all, look for a licensed massage therapist. Then, figure out what type of massage therapy works best for you. If you prefer a light touch, usually referred to as Swedish massage, you need to ask for that. If you want something more intense, you should ask for a deep tissue massage. Each massage therapist is unique, with their own preferences and skill set. You need to let them know if they’re applying too much pressure. You want to be comfortable and without pain.

If you’re working with a medical massage therapist and treating a specific diagnosis, your therapist will help you figure out what massage treatments work best. They’ll be guided by the diagnosis and are trained to know the appropriate level of massage pressure for the condition. For some medical conditions, heavier pressure, like deep tissue, is contraindicated.

I believe hands are important tools for discovering and treating medical issues. A good massage therapist develops strong skills in this area. They spend an hour one-on-one using their skills to treat your pain. They know normal anatomy and can recognize when there’s an issue or something abnormal. After referring a patient, I maintain communication with the massage therapist to discuss the progress of the patient’s care or any new issues that surface. Patients get the additional benefit of continuity of care, along with pain management.

When should you get a massage?

If you’re in pain, you should be evaluated by your healthcare professional. Talk with your doctor about non-pharmaceutical therapies like massage therapy for treating your pain. If they’re unfamiliar with these treatments, ask for a referral to an integrative medicine-trained physician for evaluation.

Massage is an effective non-pharmaceutical treatment for pain plus it’s an excellent way to relax and decrease stress.

N. Anton Borja practices integrative medicine, acupuncture and osteopathic manipulative medicine and serves as the division director of Integrative Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.