Massage therapy is a rewarding career. We have the opportunity to improve other peoples’ lives by relieving their stress and pain. It has the potential to be a lifelong career, but being a massage therapist can be a demanding job. Over time, working as a massage therapist can take a toll, both physically and emotionally. Getting injured can make work unpleasant or even impossible, which would have a huge negative impact on income and enjoying work.
So how do we keep ourselves healthy so that we can keep working? The answer is to practice effective self-care strategies.
What is self-care for massage therapists? Self-care for massage therapists, or therapist care, is the act of taking care of yourself as a massage therapist and a person. The purpose of massage therapist self-care is to protect yourself physically and emotionally in order to enable you to continue practicing as a therapist without developing emotional stress, physical discomfort or injury.
This article presents 9 massage therapist self-care tips to help you avoid injury and stay healthy in 2023. It discusses some of the common challenges that massage therapists face, and offers tips on how to avoid these problems yourself. This post also covers the essential concepts of body mechanics and ergonomics, as well as self-care strategies for massage therapy students. This material will be useful for students preparing for the MBLEx, since the Guidelines for Professional Practice content area includes questions on therapist care.
Why is self-care important for massage therapists?
Massage therapy can be a physically and emotionally demanding profession, like many other jobs in healthcare. Learning some self-care strategies and techniques will help you to reduce your risk of injury, to recovery faster if you do get injured, and to enjoy your work more.
It is important for massage therapists to make self-care a priority. This will help you to avoid injury and burnout, and can help you to enjoy a long and successful career as a massage therapist. There is a high burnout rate among massage therapists, which I believe is in part due to not implementing good self-care practices.
And since we work in the health and wellness industry, it is especially important for us to follow all of the wellness tips that we are teaching our clients.
Just imagine an overweight doctor telling his patient that she needs to lose some weight. The doctor wouldn’t have much credibility in this situation, even is his advice is correct. He would do better to be a good role model and take his own advice first.
The point is that in order for us to have credibility with our clients, we need to practice what we preach.
Massage is a physically demanding profession. There is a risk of injury due to the repetitive stresses on our body. Common injuries for massage therapists include back pain or strains, wrist and hand injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome, or repetitive strain injury (RSI).
The amount of physical stress and risk of injury that a therapist is exposed to depends on several factors. These risk factors include:
- What type of therapy are you doing? Is the majority of your work relaxation or Swedish massage? Or do you do a lot of deep tissue work?
- Equipment. Do you have to carry your massage therapy or chair for a mobile massage business? Can you easily adjust your massage table height?
- Clientele. Do you often provide deep tissue massage for athletes or people that are much larger than you?
Being a massage therapist can also be emotionally demanding at times. Most of the time massage therapy is an enjoyable and relaxed profession. You get to work in a clean and relaxing environment. But working all day with clients who are stressed or in pain can be draining.
You will inevitably work with some people that drain your soul. You will occasionally work with clients who do nothing but complain, are negative, or have a personality that exhausts you.
The best way to protect yourself from emotional burnout is to establish boundaries. Do the best work you can, but don’t take your clients’ outcomes personally. You can’t fix everything. Sometimes massage is just not what the client really needs.
9 self-care tips for massage therapists
As a massage therapist, you need to learn self-care strategies that you can use when you are at work, and some to use in your down time. You can apply the following self-care tips to help you recover faster and recharge your physical and emotional batteries.
1. Receive massage regularly
Get a massage every week or two. Have the therapist focus on high risk areas like your forearms and back muscles.
It’s easy to find local therapists who are interested in trading massages. Receiving massage regularly will also remind you of what it feels like to be on the receiving end. You can also trade with different therapists to experience what different techniques feel like. This is a great way to keep learning too.
Use self-massage techniques for hands and forearms. Include some stretches for your wrists and in your self-treatment plan. Massage tools like the Thera Cane, foam roller, massage ball can help you apply trigger point therapy techniques to hard-to-reach areas.
2. Take care of your hands
Even with good technique, massage therapy puts a high demand on the hands. Whenever possible, use a tool or your elbow or forearm to apply treatments that require a lot of pressure.
If your hands get sore during the work day, try putting them in cold water for a few minutes. I used to work at a health club that had a cold plunge pool near the massage treatment room. After working with a client I would sometimes go put my hands and forearms in the cold pool for a minute or so and it felt great. Like it took all the soreness and fatigue away. You can also use a cold pack on your wrists and forearm muscles (just don’t freeze your fingertips).
Another recovery tip is to soak your hands in a warm epsom salt bath. Epsom salts have been used as a home remedy numerous ailments for hundreds of years. Paraffin bath is also a well-known treatment people often use to treat arthritis pain in the hands.
Dit Da Jou is a popular treatment among martial artists. It is used either as a liniment or to soak the hands in.
3. Have an exercise routine
Develop a regular exercise program to keep your body and mind strong and healthy. It doesn’t have to be anything too elaborate, but do try to make it a daily habit.
To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.Buddha
Your self-care exercise program should include cardiovascular exercise at least 3-4 times per week. This could simply be walking 30 minutes on those days, at a fast enough pace to get your heart rate up. Include strength training 3-4 times per week too. Yoga exercises like sun salutations, or tai chi exercises are also a good way to stay flexible and strong.
4. Eat healthy and stay hydrated
There’s a lot of advice out there on eating healthy. So if you need guidance on this, choose a source you trust to help you create a nutrition plan that fits your needs.
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.Hippocrates, “Father of Medicine”
It is looking more and more like inflammation in the body is the root of many diseases. So one self-care tip would be to add some anti-inflammatory foods to your diet. This includes things like: turmeric, apple cider vinegar, ginger, cinnamon, and garlic. Intermittent fasting can also be an effective component of a healthy lifestyle.
Stay hydrated throughout the day. Massage therapy is a fairly active job and you will get dehydrated if you don’t drink water throughout the day.
5. Use good body mechanics and massage technique
Good body mechanics is an important component of a massage therapist self-care plan. I will go into more detail about body mechanics a little further down this post. I do want to mention massage technique here, as it relates to use of the hands.
When massaging clients, especially during deep tissue massage, be sure to use the right tool for the job. This may be your fingers, thumb, forearm, elbow, or foot. Or you could use a device like a T-bar to deliver pressure and protect your fingers.
Just remember that your fingers are your smart tools. They are sensitive enough to detect trigger points and be used in palpation assessment. However they are relatively fragile. The joints, muscles and ligaments cannot withstand years of overuse without injury or degenerating.
Your forearms and elbows are your dumb tools. They aren’t very sensitive or useful in palpation assessment. But you can use them to comfortably apply as much pressure as you need to, for a much longer duration.
Avoid white knuckle syndrome. This is when you are applying too much force with your fingers which can strain them. For example, trying to apply a lot of pressure with a thumb can make your skin at the thumb’s interphalangeal (IP) joint blanch (turn white) due due to restricting the capillaries. If you see this, you are probably straining the ligaments and other structures of the thumb.
6. Listen to your pain
Pain is an effective warning signal. It can let you know that you’ve injured something, or that you are about to. The sooner you recognize that something is wrong, the sooner you can take action to correct the problem. So listening to your pain is an important preventative self-care tip for massage therapists.
It’s normal to feel a little tired after giving several massages in a row. There’s nothing wrong with that. You are moving and exerting energy, so you will eventually get tired, no matter how perfect your technique is.
But if you start noticing pain while you are working with a client, or soreness afterwards that takes a while to go away, then it’s time to look into this and find out what you need to do differently.
7. Practice different massage styles
Doing the same type of massage treatments all day is more likely to lead to repetitive stress injuries. Learn and practice a couple of different types of massage therapy so that you can work in different positions and move in different ways.
For example, if you work full-time and regularly do 5-6 deep tissue massage treatments per day, try replacing 1 or 2 of those per day with a different modality. You could learn ashiatsu, craniosacral, lymphatic massage, or Thai massage.
Getting certified in new massage and bodywork techniques is also a good way to keep growing professionally. This self-care strategy can also can keep you interested in your career and help you to avoid burnout.
Also don’t overbook yourself. Allow time for breaks during your work day so that you can rest, get re-centered and rehydrated.
8. Get plenty of quality sleep
A good night’s sleep is important to your health. Most of us don’t get enough of it. Rest and relaxation is good, but quality sleep is essential and often under-rated. Some people people actually only need 5-6 hours per night, but most of us need more like 7-9 hours.
Getting enough quality sleep has numerous health benefits. It Improves physical and mental performance. Sufficient sleep can improve your immune function and help to regulate your hormones and emotions. People who do not get enough sleep are more at risk for inflammatory bowel disease, depression, heart disease, weight gain and obesity.
So make getting enough sleep part of your self-care strategy. Some things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep include:
- Develop a consistent sleeping schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends.
- Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night
- Turn the TV and other screens off at least 1 hour before bed. The blue light they emit can interfere with melatonin production.
- Make your bedroom dark and cool
- Avoid caffeine for several hours before bed
- Also avoid alcohol since it can disrupt your sleep cycle
9. Practice stress relieving activities
The modern world can be a stressful place. In addition to the self-care tips listed above, here are a few activities to help relieve your stress.
Practice meditation. There are many different types of meditative practices out there. Just pick one that appeals to you. It could be as simple as a 10-minute breathing exercise that you do a couple of times per day. Meditation is one of those things in which the benefits far outweigh the cost. Daily meditation will add more to your life than the time and effort it takes to do it.
Stay organized. Find ways to add some organization to your life. Establishing some consistency and daily routines can help you by requiring you to make fewer decisions every day. This will minimize decision fatigue.
Learn how to say “no”. I think that many people let themselves get spread too thin. They say yes to everything and never allow any downtime. Your time is the most valuable thing you have. So once you find what really matters to you, say no to anything that isn’t really important to you. This will leave you more time for what really matters.
Get away for a while. Take an occasional break and unplug from technology. Get out in nature and leave technology behind. Take a vacation.
Spend time with supportive family and friends. Having a support network of people you can count on will keep you grounded. Researchers frequently list this as one of the criteria for a long and happy life.
Bonus tip: let your worst clients go
This suggestion may be a little controversial and a few therapists may balk at this idea. But hear me out. Firing your worst client(s) can be a good thing for everyone. There are several reasons why you may need to let a client go. It’s time to consider discharging a client and helping him or her find a new massage therapist if:
- The client is offensive or disrespectful of you or your boundaries
- You dread seeing the client
- He or she causes you unnecessary stress
- The person is manipulative
- Leaves you feeling exhausted or angry
- Negatively affects your mood and other client interactions for the rest of the day
- There is not a therapeutic relationship, but a toxic one
Parting ways with a toxic client will protect your sanity and happiness. It isn’t you saying that this is a bad person, but just not the right client for you.
If you work at a clinic with other therapists, then one of them may be a better fit for this client. If you have your own massage therapy practice, try referring the client to another local therapist (talk to the other therapist first). You need to have other therapists that you can refer to anyway, in case you get sick or have a client that you just aren’t getting results with.
Body mechanics for the massage therapist
Good body mechanics is something that we learn early on in massage therapy training. It not only helps us to prevent injury, but it helps us to apply therapeutic techniques more efficiently and effectively.
Practicing good body mechanics is not just for while you are working. Getting injured outside of work will also affect your ability to function as a massage therapist.
A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mindMorihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido
Modify your environment to fit you
Massage therapists need to consider their own comfort in addition to client comfort. Start by adjusting your massage table height to minimize having to bend over. Stand at the side of the table to see where the tabletop is compared to your knuckles. However you may need to adjust the table slightly higher or lower from here.
*MBLEx tip: adjust the table height based on your needs, not the height of the client. If you have a short client, don’t lower the table, but let them use a step stool if needed.
If you use your elbows and forearms more to minimize using your hands, you may need adjust your table height accordingly. Also ensure that you have plenty of room to move around the table and work on each side of the table without having to get into awkward positions.
Position yourself correctly
Positioning yourself correctly will allow you to apply pressure without straining. It will also help you to work more comfortably for a longer duration.
Massage is the art of leaning
There are different stances in massage therapy and going into detail on all of them is beyond the scope of this post. However, here are a few general recommendations:
- Keep both feet flat on the floor and avoid standing on your toes
- Keep a fairly wide base of support with a slight bend in your knees
- Position your body to directly face the area you are working on, and avoid twisting
- Avoid having to reach excessively by staying close to the area you are working on
- Change your feet position frequently, so that you can continually position your hips and upper body where they need to be
- Keep a neutral spine position. Avoid working in a slumped standing or sitting posture.
Some modalities require the application of more force than others. If you specialize in deep tissue massage for example, you need to become an expert at using leverage so that you can generate force without straining.
Self-care for massage therapy students
All of the self-care tips, tools and strategies covered so far also apply to massage therapy students. However, students face a few additional challenges like:
- More stress. There’s often some anxiety and fear of failing. Plus more demands on time and less income.
- Lack of sleep. Studying and finishing homework assignments late into the night.
- Poor nutrition and hydration. Living on ramen noodles and coffee.
- Sitting for extended periods of time, either in class or studying at home.
A self-care tip for people who have to spend a lot of time sitting is to arrange your desk and chair for good ergonomics. This includes having your spine in a neutral position, and hips, knees and elbows about 90 degrees. Get up frequently to stretch and get the blood moving.
Therapist care concepts for the MBLEx
In the MBLEx content area Guidelines for Professional Practice, which represents 15% of the massage exam, there is a section on Therapist Care. This includes the following concepts:
- Body mechanics
- Protective gear (masks, gowns, gloves, etc.)
- Injury prevention
I’ve covered the principles of massage therapist self-care strategies, and the essential information on body mechanics and injury prevention in this post. You may see different variations of these concepts on the MBLEx. But you probably won’t encounter any questions that are more complicated than how I presented the information here. (I will cover protective gear in another post.)
Remember that the primary mission of the MBLEx is to ensure that therapists applying for a massage therapy license are competent, and can provide a safe and effective bodywork for the public. So the Therapist Care questions on the exam are written from that perspective.
The FSMBT also has a commitment to the massage therapy profession. So it would make sense that they want to ensure that massage therapists are able to practice safely, keep healthy, continue learning and professional development, and avoid injury so that they can keep working for a long time.