You’ve understood the importance of good body mechanics from the time you were working your way through your massage therapy program. From helping to prevent injury to allowing you to work with your clients more effectively—the true value of learning and practicing good body mechanics is in the years you can add to your career.
Calculating the Risk
Common Injuries Among Massage Therapists
How Good Body Mechanics Can Help
Influenced by the work of Sandy Fritz, Mohr, who has a background in ergonomics and massage, gave attendees several tips on what they can do to reduce the risk of injury while also increasing the level of work they’re able to do with clients.
First, when preparing for a massage therapy session, make sure you’re working at a proper table height. According to Mohr, a higher table translates to less low-back bending and a more normal wrist angle. Conversely, lower massage table heights cause the massage therapist to bend over more, moving their center of gravity forward and increasing the stress on their low back. Additionally, wrist angle in extension becomes greater and increases the stress on the intra-wrist structures, reducing grip strength.
To calculate proper table height, Mohr suggests starting with the table at half of your own height. Then, adjust slightly up if you have longer legs and slightly down if you have a longer torso.
Start with your feet, and, when they’re aligned, other body parts will fall into place. Place your feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointed forward. Try using an asymmetric stance, where one foot is forward and the other back. When massaging, face the direction of the stroke with your toes, hips, shoulders and head aligned, and remember that your back foot should remain on the floor.
Mohr suggests that massage therapists use the arm that is associated with the direction of the stroke, with the forward foot matching the arm being used. In other words: if the massage stroke is going left, use the left arm and put your left foot forward. Also, be sure to fall into (lean on) the client to generate pressure from your core instead of pushing with muscles.
Whenever possible, Mohr explains, massage therapists should use an uphill stroke. Once your stroke is over the hill, you lose the mechanical advantage and need to push harder to maintain pressure on the client. Using bolsters is a great way to create hills you can lean into, and be sure to stack your joints, as bending your elbow requires effort in your triceps.
Remember, too, that for many strokes, including when you use your forearm, you’re going to want to keep your hand, fingers and wrist relaxed. Also, the upper arm should not be more than 45 degrees away from the body. If you need to make a longer stroke, take a step forward and then continue the stroke, don’t reach out with the upper arm.
Mohr suggests that massage therapists use their forearm, supported fingers or fist when considering ways they can generate force during a massage therapy session, steering clear of both the thumb and the elbow.
Also, think about how you can use counter pressure to increase the force you apply to your clients. For example, you can grasp your massage table and pull back or up, using the table for leverage. Or, instead of pulling with your arms or shoulder muscles, using your own body weight to pull by grasping and leaning back.
There are two things that almost never change about the massage therapy profession: how passionate massage therapists are about what they do and how physically challenging the work can be. Self-care is all about staying healthy and injury free, and learning—and using—good body mechanics is a great place to start. And, learning how your work can be just as effective without being as hard on your body will help keep you in the profession you love.
Body Mechanics Field Study
During his session on reducing injury and increasing output with proper body mechanics at the AMTA 2013 National Convention, Edward Mohr shared some interesting results of a field study he conducted that focused on testing the strength capability of 18 massage therapists.
For the study, the massage therapists applied force at three different table heights: 29 inches, 34.5 inches and 39.5 inches. Three postures were tested—standing arm push (poor posture), stacked joints without locking the back knee (good posture), and stacked joints with a locked back knee (best posture)—and data was collected with an Ergo-FET digital palm gauge.
At each height, five data points were collected: standing arm push, standing arm push with counter pressure, stacked joints without locking the knee, stacked joints with locked knee, and stacked joints with locked knee and counter pressure.
Results showed that with stacked joints, by locking the back knee, applied force increased by 20 percent. More importantly, when compared to a standing arm push, applied force increased by 34 percent when joints are stacked and knee locked. In other words, stacking and locking joints and properly transferring body weight allows massage therapists to achieve the same amount of pressure while decreasing the amount of effort needed. (Note: for individuals with lax knee joints, do not hyperextend the knee when “locking” the knee).