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Specialized Massages for Medical Conditions

Massage therapists need to learn safe and effective techniques for a range of conditions

When you think of massage therapy, you might think of Swedish massages, hot stone massages, or people enjoying a luxurious, relaxing day at the spa. This is certainly one way that massage can be enjoyed, but there is also another side of massage therapy. Massage therapy has been shown to help people who are suffering from a range of medical conditions, from lower back pain, chronic pain, and arthritis, to sports injuries, pregnancies, and cancer.

Special massages for medical conditions are part of most massage therapy training programs. Students learn about anatomy and physiology, common medical conditions and how they affect the body, how medications’ side effects can affect massage safety, and how to communicate with clients’ medical providers and specialists.

Below are some of the conditions for which people often seek relief through massage therapy. For more details on the considerations that a massage therapist must use, visit the Massage for Health Conditions page compiled by the American Massage Therapy Association.

Pregnancy/Prenatal Massage

If you have ever been pregnant, you know that your body goes through a lot of physical changes, some of which are pretty uncomfortable, such as lower back pain, sciatic pain, or pelvic pain. Some women find relief from pregnancy pains and tensions through massage therapy and/or physical therapy. It is best to work with a massage therapist who has been trained and certified in prenatal massage techniques. When working with a pregnant client, the massage therapist should:

  • First, be sure the client’s obstetrician has approved her for massage therapy.
  • Do a thorough intake to determine whether the woman is experiencing any pregnancy complications or new areas of tension or pain.
  • Have a firm understanding of the physiologic changes caused by a pregnancy as it progresses through each trimester.
  • Use special side-lying positions that are safe for the mother and baby.
  • Choose the appropriate massage technique: typically it is Swedish massage with long strokes. Therapies like deep tissue massage are usually not used during pregnancy.
  • Know which issues should be referred to the obstetrician or physical therapist.

Arthritis Massage

Many people with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, turn to massage as one method to help reduce the pain in their joints and muscles. As with any type of massage, each client’s needs are different, and the massage therapist needs to do a careful job of evaluating what type of massage is right for a client with arthritis. The therapist should:

  • Discuss the client’s diagnosis, medications, and side effects during the intake interview. Inquire whether any flare-ups are occurring.
  • Have a thorough understanding of arthritis and how it is affected by massage.
  • Use a moderate touch when possible, unless the client requires a lighter touch.
  • Modify the therapy during major flare-ups. There may be parts of the body that the therapist should avoid altogether during a flare-up, and other parts that should be worked very gently.
  • Give the client a variety of self-massage techniques to use in between sessions.
  • Know when issues should be referred to a rheumatologist.

Therapists should remember that arthritis is a chronic condition that can require patients to live with a great deal of pain. While massage can certainly help, it will not provide permanent relief. Therapists should not overpromise what massage therapy can do.

Massage for Elderly Clients

As more of the baby boom population enters older age, the massage therapy field is seeing more elderly clients. There are certain considerations that a massage therapist must think about with the aging body, such as skin that bruises more easily, bones that are more fragile, a decline in flexibility and coordination, an increase in blood pressure, a decrease in circulation, and other health conditions. The therapist should:

  • Complete a thorough intake interview, especially since elderly clients are more likely to have major health issues such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, or cancer, which require special massage techniques.
  • Use gentle stretching and gentle joint movements, such as rocking, and avoid any extreme mobilizations.
  • Use much lighter touch to avoid bruising the skin.
  • Consider using a seated position or supine position, rather than a prone position, if that works best for the client.
  • Help patients with entering and exiting the spa, as well as getting up and down from the table, to minimize chance of falls.
  • Move more slowly, be patient, and respect the client’s need for more time to get ready.
  • Be aware of the emotional needs of your clients. With aging can come the loss of loved ones, changes in career or retirement, and other life changes that can be challenging emotionally.

Massage for clients with cancer 

Of the many medical treatments and surgeries that people with cancer have to endure, massage therapy can be one therapy that helps give them some relief or relaxation. Massage therapists need to be very careful to be sensitive to both the emotional and physical needs of clients with cancer. The therapist should:

  • Schedule a longer time for intake, so that there is time to talk about the specifics of the client’s diagnosis and treatment.
  • Each appointment, find out if there were any surgical procedures, chemotherapy side effects, or other medications that will affect the massage.
  • Each appointment, be sure the client has been cleared by the oncologist to receive massage therapy, and know if there are any restrictions.
  • Determine the appropriate length for the session. Many cancer patients do not want or need the full hour session.
  • Use a lighter touch and avoid areas like enlarged lymph nodes, surgical sites, chemotherapy ports, and areas affected by radiation.
  • Reschedule the appointment if the therapist is sick, since many cancer patients will have weakened immune systems.
  • Schedule the appointments when the patient is not going to be nauseous from chemotherapy treatments.
  • Be aware of the client’s emotional needs. Play off the client’s lead, and let the client determine how much they want to share.

This is just a sampling of the many considerations that massage therapists need to understand. Massage therapists need to be well-versed in a wide range of medical areas in order to deliver safe and effective massage for clients with special medical concerns.

Finding the right massage therapy training

If you are interested in a becoming a massage therapist, you will want to be sure to find a massage therapy school that understands the importance of providing safe and effective massages to all patients—particularly patients with medical conditions. If you are interested in finding out about the massage therapy program at Branford Hall, please contact us to request more information. At Branford Hall, we are committed to training our students with the skills they need to succeed in the field of massage therapy.