Maybe it’s a twinge in your wrist. Or, perhaps your neck and low back start to hurt midway through your day when before you could practice pain free. You might notice your thumb hurting, or you can’t work as deeply as you once did. As a massage therapist, your body (and mind) let you know when something isn’t working— and you need to pay attention.
Self-care is essential to career longevity. “There’s a reason the airlines instruct you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others,” says Kathleen Gramzay, a massage therapist and developer of Kinessage®. “If a therapist is in pain or mentally, emotionally or physically fatigued, the chance of personal injury increases and the ability to give top-notch care and service to clients diminishes.”
Self-talk. Have you ever had a day off planned but found yourself at your practice anyway? How about skipping a meal so you can work on that client who was late? Sometimes, how we talk to ourselves makes taking ourselves from the top of the priority list to the bottom much easier—which, when done on a consistent basis, erodes your ability to maintain a solid self-care regimen. “The internal chatter can range from ‘I need the money’ to ‘I can’t say no to a client,’ and often overrides the therapist’s need to take care of themselves, which can lead to injury or burnout,” says Gramzay. “Massage therapists are professional caregivers whose habit is to take care of others before themselves.”
Physical pain. Gramzay’s own pain is what spurred her to develop a different way of working. “After one year of practice, my neck and wrists hurt so bad I knew that if I didn’t figure out a smarter way to work, I’d be finished before I really even got started,” she explains.
That sentiment probably sounds familiar to many massage therapists. The fact is, however, that massage therapists still face the potential for injury—even with a solid understanding of how physically demanding the massage therapy profession is, as well as the importance of self-care. “Massage therapists spend a significant amount of time in forward flexion, bending and reaching, which causes duress on the neck, shoulder and low back,” Gramzay says. “Employing static compression from small muscles and bent joints rather than using movement and translating force through those muscles and joints leaves wrists and thumbs susceptible to more static loading and possible injury.”
What You Can Do
Heed the warnings. “Listen to what your body is telling you,” Gramzay encourages. “If you’re in pain, it means something needs to be tended to, not ignored.” Don’t try to push through the pain, and be ware of when you’re mentally or emotionally feeling overwhelmed. “Your health and well-being are as important as your clients,” adds Gramzay.
You’re meant to move. As a massage therapist, you understand that the body is designed to move. At the very least, make sure you are stretching in directions counter to your habitual patterns throughout the day,” explains Gramzay. “For example, place your forearms—elbow to palm—vertically against a door frame and lean in for a pectoralis stretch.” Or, make good use of whatever time you have between clients and lie over an exercise ball in extension, arms out horizontally, and breathe deeply.
Schedule yourself. Yes, you should schedule regular massage therapy sessions for yourself—but don’t stop there. Particularly because self-care is so important, make sure you set aside time for the activities hat help keep you in shape, both mentally and physically. Gramzay advises, “Make the first appointments in your calendar yours: one for your daily exercise or stretching routine, and one for your daily meditation, breathing or relaxation practice. Honor them as if you’re being paid for the time, because the value of them is priceless to your well-being and career longevity.”
You became a massage therapist for a reason: you want to help people. Taking care of others, whether that’s relieving pain, providing stress relief or helping with symptoms of chronic disease, is at the very heart of what you do. An essential part of your being able to take care of your clients, however, is first taking care of yourself. Incorporating good self-care habits into your massage therapy practice goes a long way in helping you stay in the profession you love.