Beginning a new career can be an exciting time—and it can also be a time filled with unfamiliar risks and challenges. It's a time when enthusiasm outweighs experience, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of doing too much, too soon.
In the first five years of their careers, massage therapists tend to have high rates of musculoskeletal symptoms, including backaches, sore wrists and shoulders, and neck pain. Considering the physical and emotional demands the massage profession places on practitioners, you can understand why a high-quality self-care program is more than a good idea—it's a necessity.
Self-care is a large umbrella term that covers such topics as ergonomics, body mechanics, injury prevention, and physical and mental wellness. In this article, I will provide key points for each of these facets of self-care, and encourage you to thoroughly explore each of these topics further.
The goal of ergonomics is to design a workplace that fits you and the way you work. This means having enough space around your table so you can adopt a stance comfortable for performing any technique. It also means setting your table at the correct height for your stature and style of massage. Listen to your massage instructors and to your own body. A table that is too low will force you to bend forward at the waist, and your low back will probably suffer. If a table is too high, you will raise your shoulders and likely feel symptoms in your arms and shoulders.
Good ergonomics makes good body mechanics possible, but does not guarantee them. You still need to make a conscious effort to work in near-neutral postures as much as possible. These are your strongest postures and, therefore, your most efficient ones. As you learn new massage techniques, your initial focus will likely be on the technique and not necessarily on body mechanics. Be open to coaching from your instructors, so you can correct any issues before they become bad habits.
This is also an excellent time to develop a good physical conditioning regimen. If you haven't yet begun to do hands-on massage work, you should focus on building strength and endurance in the muscles you'll be using most: hands, arms, shoulders, chest, hips and legs. Don't neglect your core muscles; they will help you connect the power of larger muscles in your lower body with those of your upper torso and arms, from which massage strokes are delivered.
Overall fitness is important, but you will also need to build activity-specific conditioning. The best way to get fit for massage work is by performing massage work. Be sure to gradually increase the amount of massage work you do.
Even with the best ergonomics, body mechanics and physical conditioning, you can still experience symptoms and injury if you overuse your body. World-class athletes still experience injuries when they overtrain or push themselves too hard in competition. It's no coincidence the most commonly injured body parts among massage therapists are also those that are most often overused. Necks get sore from constantly looking down at a client; backs ache from bending forward too far and too often; and shoulders hurt from reaching too far while applying pressure. Wrists and thumbs are especially vulnerable, due to the combination of repetitive movements and forceful exertions that make up much of massage work. It may take a while to learn the various treatment techniques available to help avoid overuse, but this should be one of your educational goals, in both massage school and continuing education classes.
In the meantime, you may feel sore from asking your muscles to do work that is unfamiliar to them. Receiving massage should be an important part of your self-care plan as well. This also provides an opportunity to experience massage from a client's perspective, which will make you a better therapist.
You will probably receive massage from your fellow students during class, but it's likely this will include spot work, so you'll want to supplement it with a full-body massage. You can also add in some self-massage techniques. One of my favorite self-care tools is a foam roller to work on larger muscle groups in the legs, hips and back.
Effective Self-Care Helps You Stay Healthy
As a massage student, you're making a big investment of time, effort and money. While your current focus is on learning skills and passing exams, your ultimate goal is to graduate and see a return on your investment. A good self-care program can help you reach this goal and ensure a long and prosperous career.