Massage therapists work with clients for a wide variety of reasons, and as research on the benefits of massage becomes more robust, many more people are looking for help with pain relief. But what happens when you're the one in pain or working to manage a chronic disease?
Along with common overuse issues like carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, golfer’s elbow, and neck and shoulder strain, massage therapists can also themselves be dealing with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia and arthritis. A 2017 study on the incidence of osteoarthritic symptoms in female massage therapists, for example, found that 51 percent of participants experienced pain and stiffness in their hands.1
For career longevity, massage therapy demands good self-care habits, and it’s true that there are some injuries and health conditions that may prove career-ending. You don’t have to start from the assumption, however, that every diagnosis of a condition that includes chronic pain means the end of your career.
Learn more from two massage therapists dealing with osteoarthritis and the pain that comes from those conditions, as well as how they stay in the profession they love by working smarter and making self-care their No. 1 priority.
Listen to Your Body, Then Adjust the Techniques You Use
Any type of pain, whether from overuse or a chronic condition, should be taken seriously, and sometimes taking time away from your practice is going to be necessary, particularly when you’re dealing with an injury. Dina Faye Gilmore, a massage therapist at SMRT Pain Relief Center in Aurora, Colorado, left the profession for a year after her osteoarthritis got significantly worse, and she really had no plans to return. “I went back into the corporate world,” she remembers. “But I was laid off the following year due to downsizing.”
So, she went back to massage therapy—happily, she recalls—but knew things were going to have to change. Working with a chronic pain condition requires that massage therapists take inventory of how their body is feeling and make adjustments as necessary. “The biggest challenge I have with osteoarthritis is in the mornings when my entire body is stiff, achy and in pain,” she says. “I started taking Aleve to help with my daily pain, and I choose to stay away from certain foods I know increase my inflammation and pain.”
Gilmore also had to change how she approaches massage sessions. “I had to stop doing deep tissue massage permanently,” she says, adding that she’s focused on supplementing her practice with other techniques that aren’t as hard on her body.
When mild toe pain that started in her mid-30s started to become more severe, Dawn Lewis, massage therapist and owner of SMRT Pain Relief Center in Aurora, Colorado, decided she needed to take a break from massage to seek medical care. “I went to the doctor and realized I needed surgery because I had osteoarthritis in the metatarsophalangeal joints of both my big toes,” she explains. “I thought then that I might not be able to do massage again.”
Three foot surgeries later, and Lewis is still practicing, although she admits that the sometimes extended recovery time does disrupt her practice. “My teaching schedule is my own,” she says. “If I plan the surgery right, I have no class commitments. But the clients are continuous.”
Like Gilmore, Lewis no longer uses some massage techniques that put too much strain on her body, like deep tissue, but finds that doesn’t negatively affect the clients she sees. Transitions are also much more difficult since her last surgery, but most of those issues can be handled with technique choice, too.
Shorter—or Fewer—Massage Sessions
When you’re used to practicing every day, or doing a certain number of massage sessions every day, cutting back may feel like you’re leaving the profession you love—but doing so may be precisely what keeps you practicing. Gilmore takes at least two days a week off from performing massage therapy to give herself and her body a chance to recharge.
When you’re navigating a chronic condition, shorter massage therapy sessions can also help you stay in the profession. For example, working with clients who are in pain themselves and can’t tolerate a full massage therapy session might be a good option. Carpal tunnel or low back pain can benefit from targeted work that doesn’t need to extend to the rest of the body, meaning massage therapists can better preserve their own physical well-being.
There are a variety of common workplace issues shorter massage therapy sessions can help with, including wrist and neck strains that occur because of the amount of time people are spending in front of and working with technology. Even when people are cognizant and using good practices to relieve strain on one area, often that adds stress to another.
With most of these conditions, shorter massage sessions may be effective in helping relieve some of the troublesome symptoms, and you can build solid professional relationships with people who are likely going to need continued care.
One advantage you have when working with clients in pain is your ability to relate to them. “Having arthritis absolutely helps me relate to what clients go through in their physical bodies, their limitations, and dealing with chronic and acute pain,” Gilmore says. “I get it. Having a therapist who understands the pain can greatly improve the massage for the client, and you’ll often know what techniques are going to work best.”
Lewis, too, says her own experience with pain makes her a better massage therapist. “My gait is chronically off from having different surgeries on each foot,” she says. “Pain is something I understand from a therapist’s perspective. I know how scary it can be, but I also know how to help.”
From the archives: Arthritis and osteoarthritis are not uncommon for massage therapists, but that doesn’t mean they are the only painful condition they deal with personally. In “Easing the Constant Pain,” you’ll get an in-depth understanding of the symptoms of fibromyalgia, common characteristics of the condition and how massage therapy can help.
In All Things—You Matter
Gilmore is very direct about the necessity for self-care: “We need to put ourselves first if we want to have longevity,” she explains. “Treat yourself as you do your clients, take your own advice, take vacations and time off, and be kind to yourself.”
Lewis agrees. “From the modalities we do to how we do them to how we exercise to how often we exercise to how much massage we get to what kind of massage we get, every piece of your self-care regimen is incredibly important,” she explains.
Self-care, Gilmore notes, should be baked into your practice from the very beginning. “You are the only one responsible for your self-care,” she explains. “Good self-care is essential for career longevity and preventing burnout.” This fact doesn’t change as you become more experienced, and is even more vital when—or if—you deal with chronic conditions that may have pain in their symptom profile. “If you put healthy measures in place, receive consistent massage therapy and have a wide range of techniques in your toolbox, you can easily extend your career,” Gilmore adds.
The holistic nature of self-care is stressed by Lewis, too, who uses massage therapy and acupuncture, yoga and weightlifting as part of her own self-care routine.
You know you can help others manage their own pain, and you need to do the same for yourself. A diagnosis of a chronic condition like arthritis or osteoarthritis might make you think you need to find another profession. What Lewis and Gilmore show is that you may just need to find a different way to be in this profession you love so much, including slowing down, adjusting the techniques you use and—above all else—making sure that the self-care that can so quickly fall to the bottom of your priority list is kept top of mind.
Learn more by taking AMTA's Continuing Education Course: Healthy Hands: How to Properly Take Care of Forearms, Wrists and Hands.
1. Heinmari K, Valencia K, Nicolette H. The prevalence of osteoarthritic symptoms of the hands amongst female massage therapists. Health SA Gesondheid. 2017 6 Dec;22:184–193.