Why Relaxation Massage Is Being Left Behind and Left Out -- Part 2

Last week’s post was a story of my own which dealt with relaxation massage and how I found that it was my “niche” in the competitive massage world, despite many people having told me that what I offer isn’t enough to keep a massage practice afloat. This week’s post will explore why relaxation massage no longer seems to be emphasized as much in the industry in general and give some insights into how all massage styles as a whole can be better represented to clients and those outside the world of massage.

How Medical Massage Came to Be Emphasized

At one point in the U.S.A., massage was viewed as a very sordid activity. It was a profession largely populated by prostitutes and sex workers and had little to no therapeutic value, being used rather to satisfy the sexual desires of the people who sought it out. This unfortunate past still haunts the profession today, despite the best efforts of professional therapists and massage organizations to inform people of the true purpose and benefits of massage and to emphasize the illegal nature of providing sexual services during a massage. Even two or three decades ago, therapists who announced to their family and friends that they were going to train in massage would receive questioning glances and comments akin to, “I didn’t know they had a school for prostitutes.” And even if those people didn’t view massage as a purely illicit activity, there were just as many who viewed it as nothing more than expensive pampering that was hardly beneficial and that only the rich could afford on a regular basis.

Because of this, there has been a huge push from the massage industry in general to legitimize itself as a beneficial therapy and as valid alternative and preventative medicine. From research published in top journals to articles written up in the most well-known massage magazines, medical massage especially has been given an enormous spotlight. Such modalities as orthopedic, myofascial release, cranio-sacral, rolfing, and others have been featured to such an extent that I hardly hear anything anymore about just going to receive basic relaxation massage once a month, or as often as the client feels they can.

The Prominence of Medical Massage Is Leaving Out Relaxation Therapy

Don’t get me wrong. The medical massage modalities are extremely important and valuable for what they offer. People who have been unable to find relief from pain and muscle disorders with doctors of Western medicine have found relief through work with a medical massage therapist, and such things are absolutely wonderful and warm my heart as a therapist. But I view medical massage, wonderful though it is, as something of a “last resort.” You shouldn’t need, for instance, to go receive a full orthopedic assessment and session every week unless you’ve got something acutely wrong that needs adjustment. Instead, it would make more sense to do it every few months or so, as a sort of “tune-up” (like going to get an annual physical at the doctor’s). Whatever happened to emphasizing to the majority of people the value of just plain old Swedish, or any other relaxing style, for that matter?

I subscribe to a massage insurance policy which happens to come with a subscription to a magazine that the company also publishes. It is a fantastic magazine, with informational articles ranging on topics covering everything from money management, to the latest in scientific discoveries, to highlights on anatomy and physiology relevant to the massage world. I love reading through it and sharing it now and again with my clients. However, it always strikes me how little I see in the magazine about relaxation massage. Perhaps it’s because Swedish massage and spas are so common that they assume most therapists want to expand their practice to include something “bigger and better” so to speak.

It also is probably the result of attempting to legitimize massage in the medical world. If we can prove to doctors and other medical practitioners that we have something medically valuable to offer, they are far less likely to brush off our services as nothing more than a “fluff” treatment or waste of money. But I find the trend in the massage industry of putting emphasis on medical modalities to be a little sad, actually. While the people who offer orthopedic or myofascial release or neurokinetic therapy are providing services that many need, I would say that probably 75% of the population or more doesn’t need medical massage. Or at least, they don’t need it until they have something really out of kilter that needs intense, focused work to bring back into balance. Instead, most people probably need relaxation massage to help keep those issues from cropping up in the first place. Can a myofascial release session be relaxing? Yes, it can, especially if it is providing relief from deep-seated and stubborn pain. But the intensity of the session itself probably wouldn’t fit what most people think of as “relaxing.”

Relaxation Massage And Medical Massage As Different, But Equally Important, Grades of “Medicine”

Nowadays, preventive medicine practices, woefully forgotten or neglected for many years in favor of prescriptions and treatment of symptoms rather than root causes, is starting to make a comeback. In fact, most massage therapists would argue that massage is an extremely valuable preventive medical practice to enjoy as often as possible, and they would be correct. But some massage modalities are more accurately painted as “preventive” in nature. If we look at the world of massage therapy as though we were our own little medical community, I imagine it could be viewed something like this. The therapists who practice such modalities as Swedish, deep tissue, hot stone, Lomi lomi, and other similar relaxing and basically therapeutic styles would be the ones truly providing the “preventive” health care to clients. Such modalities are shown to lower blood pressure, increase circulation, decrease stress, boost “feel-good” and anti-inflammatory hormones, and provide a plethora of other great benefits to help keep a body and mind in good shape. Then, if the body does end up getting out of kilter, whether from disease, injury, or other cause, the other massage modalities that are more focused in nature – myofascial, orthopedic, neurokinetic, cranio-sacral, etc. – would be the equivalent of “going to see the doctor.” The latter styles tend to focus more on specific issues and targeted outcomes for those issues.

In our eagerness to legitimize ourselves and our profession, both to clients and to the medical community, we have begun to forget that simple relaxation massage can be as profoundly healing for most people as the most specialized of the medical massage treatments can be for others. It is my hope that we as massage therapists help the industry find the kind of balance that we strive to achieve in our clients lives and in our own lives. For in that balance we will find the best healing for those we serve.