Before each massage if you’re not asking yourself this question– How can I do a good massage without beating up my body?–you’re probably in pain or you’re on your way to being in pain.
You Should Quit Massage
In June of 2013, severe pain in my neck, shoulder and arm sent me to the orthopedist’s office. There I got some bad news. An old football injury compounded by years of working out left me with a banged up left shoulder joint, cervical radiculopathy and cubital tunnel syndrome. The orthopedist told me that I should find a new job.
But I wasn’t about to give up. Like many MTs, I had worked around pain issues before. And in the past, making adjustments to my massage and workouts put me on the right course to eliminating pain.
This, by far, was the biggest pain challenge I had faced in my massage career. In an attempt to survive this ordeal, I’d ask myself before each massage “how do I still do a good job without causing or increasing the pain?” It took me about a year to answer this question. The answer eliminated my pain and changed the way I do massage forever.
Why We Stay in Pain
The reason why most of us stay in pain when doing massage is not because our mothers were mean to us. By the way, my mom did an awesome job raising her kids. (She reads my blog.)
It’s actually quite simple: we’re comfortable with doing massage a certain way. And once we’re in the habit of doing massage a certain way, it’s hard to break that habit.We (MTs) stay in pain because we don't change the massage habits that hurt us. Click To Tweet
But because of my dire situation, I was forced to look at my massage habits. This is what I discovered.
How I Eliminated Neck, Shoulder, and Arm Pain
There was a song in the 1970s by Bill Withers called Lean on Me. The famous chorus line is: Lean on me when you’re not strong.
In massage, I found the opposite to be true: lean on the client when you ARE strong. The more you lean, the stronger you will stay.
I discovered this when I started to pay close attention to my neck and shoulder pain while massaging. First, I noticed that using my left elbow/forearm made my arm pain worse. So I stopped using my elbows/forearms for deep pressure. This meant I was left with knuckles and fists to generate deep pressure.
At my normal table height, knuckles and fists were killing my neck and shoulders. And I would stand on my tip-toes to get more leverage. That led me to experiment with lowering my table. And that’s when the magic began. The more pressure I could generate from simply leaning instead of pressing with my shoulders and arms, the better my upper-body felt.
Here are the keys that I learned for leaning:
- Have your table low enough so that you’re generating pressure from your lean, not your shoulders and arms.
- Stack your joints over top each other.
- Keep your work below, in front of and close to you.
In this video, I show how I lean to generate pressure.
The good news was that my upper body pain went away because of my lower table height. The bad news was that my lower back was now starting to feel a little funky. Ruh roh…
Getting Rid of Lower Back Pain
I didn’t want to give up the tremendous gains I had main for my upper-body because my table was now lower. So I experimented with potential back-saving techniques at a low table height. Eventually, I found that I could eliminate lower-back pain if I followed these 2 keys:
- When doing medium to deep pressure, maintain 2 to 4 points of contact with the table/client.
An example of 2 points of contact could be a leg against the table and a hand on the client. Three points of contact could be a leg against the table and 2 hands on the client. Four points of contact could be 2 legs against the table and 1 hand on the client and one on the table.
When you lean against the table/client, you’re back is doing less work to keep you upright. In this supported position, you can then relax your lower back into a neutral (not flexed or extended) position.
In addition, when I lean against the table, I can easily regulate my pressure with my legs. When I shift my weight to my toes (table and client), I generate more pressure. And I when lean back towards my heals, I generate less pressure.
2. Bend your legs to support your weight when doing light pressure.
Light pressure requires minimal (if any) leaning. So that means you can’t let all or most of your body weight rest on the client/table. Without the support, you’re back muscles are working hard again and it will be difficult to keep your lower back in a neutral position.
However, if you bend your knees you can center your weight and maintain a neutral back. Check out this video, Low and High in the Saddle, to see what I mean. I call the lean stance for medium to deep pressure “high in the saddle” and the bent knee stance for light pressure “low in the saddle”.
Getting Rid Of Hand, Wrist and Forearm Pain
Since I started using my knuckles and fists for deep pressure, I worried that I was going to burn out my hands, specifically my thumbs and middle knuckles.
So I asked myself: what else could I use in muscle attachments, like the levator scapular attachment, besides my go-to thumb?
When I gave myself time to experiment, the answer was mind blowing. Ready?
My non-dominant thumb, two thumbs barred together, a knuckle on my dominant hand, a knuckle on my non-dominant hand, a knuckle and thumb together, the other knuckle and thumb together, dominant elbow, non-dominant elbow, an L-bar (my favorite massage tool), a T-bar (my second favorite massage tool), an L-bar and my middle finger, an L-bar and my other middle finger, a T-bar and a thumb, T-bar and the other thumb, an L-bar and a knuckle…believe it or not, there are more.
Having as many pressing options allowed me to rotate body parts so that I wasn’t wearing one out. In addition, squeezing by pressing between massage tools, hands and/or fingers is another great way to save your hands. Here’s a squeeze by pressing video: Trap Release Using a T-bar.
You Can Have a Happy Body
The way to having a happy body starts with the question: How can I do a good massage without beating up my body?
Here’s what I found that has helped me:
- To eliminate hand, wrist and forearm pain: think non-dominant fingers, thumb and elbow/forearm. Use combination tools, e.g, knuckle and thumb together. And instead of squeezing with one hand, try pressing between both hands.
- To knock out lower back pain: for medium to deep pressure, lean into the client and table. Having 2 or more points of contact on the client/table, make it easier on your back. For light pressure, bend your legs.
- To stop neck, shoulder, and arm pain: keep your work below, in front of and near you.
Once you start feeling better, you’ll never want to go back. And if you do backslide, you won’t stay there for long.