When I tell people I grew up with a massage therapist for a father, the first thing they say is typically along the lines of “Wow, you’re so lucky, you must have gotten massages all the time!”
(Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Though I did sometimes get to go into the school he taught at so his students could practice massage techniques on me.)
I’d also get an assortment of friends asking me to give them massages. I’m not sure why they thought I was qualified – massage is a learned skill, not a genetic ability, people!
But I got curious about the benefits of massage. Sure, releasing tension in your body feels great, but what does massage really do beyond rubbing out some knots in your back?
Here’s what my dad, Bruce Hunt, CMT, has to say about the benefits of massage therapy. Now retired, he spent 34 years practicing and 13 years teaching at Potomac Massage Training Institute in Washington, DC.
Q: What type of training does a massage therapist have to complete in order to become certified?
A: Every state has different certification requirements. Most require between 500-1500 hours of in-school and practice training, which includes training in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology.
Q: What are some of the benefits of massage therapy?
A: There’s a wide range of benefits massage therapy can provide, including:
Reducing stress and increasing relaxation
Reducing pain, muscle tension and soreness
Increasing energy and alertness
Lowering heart rate and blood pressure
Improving immune function
Studies to prove the above benefits are ongoing and massage is constantly being researched, but it’s generally accepted that getting massage is better than not getting it.
Q: Some of those benefits seem obvious, like reducing stress and muscle soreness, and some are a bit surprising to me, like increasing alertness and improving immune function. Can you explain why massage can contribute to those health benefits?
A: Reducing stress improves the body’s ability to function and heal itself. Stress creates cortisol, which leads to inflammation and inhibits the body’s ability to care for and heal itself. When you reduce stress and have a general sense of well-being, the body is more able to do the functions that it was designed to do.
There are plenty of studies proving that stress increases your blood pressure and heart rate. When someone relaxes and de-stresses during the course of massage, the opposite is expected — unless someone has an underlying condition, like high blood pressure. You can’t tell someone a massage will cure their high blood pressure — that needs the attention of a physician.
Q: What types of massage are there, and what are their benefits?
A: Swedish massage is the most common type of massage. It consists of a series of five different kinds of strokes that are performed to achieve different results in the body. All other types of massage, in my opinion, grow out of Swedish massage.
Deep tissue massage is the next most common, and perhaps the least understood type of massage. It’s often understood to mean deep pressure work, but nothing could be further from the truth. Deep pressure work is heavy, sometimes painful work; deep tissue massage, on the other hand, should be a balance between the therapists’ ability to feel and release tension in the muscle tissue and the pain threshold of the client on the table.
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You should never be pushed beyond your own pain threshold when you’re on the table, and you can evaluate pain in 2 ways — if it hurts and then you take a breath and it starts to feel better, that’s good pain. If it hurts and it doesn’t get better as you breathe into it, that’s when you should ask your therapist to stop. If your therapist says “I know it hurts, but it’s good for you and it’ll get better soon,” that’s a major red flag for you.
Hot stone massage is both its own technique (you can get a full hot or cold stone massage), and a technique that many therapists incorporate into Swedish or deep tissue massage, as the heat from the stones will relax your muscles. Hot stones are very hot and can burn if left in one spot, so they’ll be moved around and applied to different parts of your body while hot, and then will be placed and left on certain areas of your body as they start to cool down.
Then we have types of massage like shiatsu massage and trigger point work. These work with pressure points to help relieve pain. There are also more niche types of massage, like Maya abdominal massage and the Trager approach. The Trager approach involves a specific format of gently rocking body parts to release muscle tension — if you can find someone in your area trained in Trager, I highly recommend it.
Q: What should people look for as they’re browsing massage therapist practitioners?
A: Make sure the practitioner is nationally certified, as that certification requires an appropriate amount of schooling, and definitely read other people’s reviews. If somebody makes guarantees to get rid of pain or solve back problems or stuff like that, that’s just bold — every body is different, and how I, as a therapist, interact with that person and that body is going to be different from person to person.
I never made healing claims in any of my marketing. I knew that anybody who walked into my office with a headache wouldn’t leave with a headache, but I never claimed that I could cure it.
For example, I don’t know whether the headache is being created because someone has a brain tumor — I just know that I can soften muscles that cause headaches. But if somebody comes in and has medical issues that are contraindicating massage, there are reasons I wouldn’t work on that person.
There are reasons not to get massage, and well-trained therapists should recognize contraindications for massage, meaning you want to look for therapists who ask you for your health history. It’s like choosing the right mental health therapist. Not every therapist is good, and not every therapist is right for every mind.
Q: What advice would you give to people wondering if their insurance will cover massage therapy?
A: Call your insurance and ask what kind of coverage you have for complementary medicine. Some insurance practices will cover massage, some will with a doctor’s referral, and some won’t, so you should check that carefully. The best thing to do would be to call them and ask.
Have you tried massage therapy? Which types of massage therapy benefit you the most? Share your recommendations in the comments below!
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