Massage sure does feel, great doesn't it? And good for you too! That sounds like a win-win situation. But, let's be honest: A massage session isn't cheap. It's a financial and time commitment and if you don't feel like you're getting the most out of the service you're paying for it can be hard to see a reason to continue.
Am I right?
"Ugh! Why won't these knots go away?!"
"This shoulder has been acting up on me for years and just doesn't seem to get better."
"Nothing is helping!"
Do any of these sound familiar? Are you starting to wonder what the point of getting regular massage is?
What if I told you there were a five key steps you can take right now to make sure you are getting the most out of your sessions?
Well, there are!
The following key points will allow you to think more deeply about your relationship with your body, your massage therapist and even your ongoing pain and to take your massage sessions from a "feel good indulgence" to a critical component of your health and wellness routine:
1) Think of your muscles like an onion: lots and lots of layers. A therapist's job is to begin the work of peeling away each of those layers. With each layer that is peeled away you will feel a lessening of tightness and discomfort, an improvement in range of motion, an increased ability to sink into relaxation quicker and a more conscious awareness of your posture and how you move in your body. With each session the therapist peels away a few more layers, opening your structure up just a little bit more each time. Effective and lasting change is rarely, if ever, achieved in a single session.
2) Be honest about your goals: Attitude and expectation are critical and not all massage is created equal. There are many reasons a person schedules an appointment for a massage. Some people schedule a massage to treat themselves to an hour of indulgent pampering and to melt away. Others need to quiet their minds and allow themselves a reprieve from stressors. For those in pain, massage is a way to take control of their body. Some people feel generally great, are in good health and simply want to remain so. Just as there are many different reasons to get a massage there are many, many different kinds of bodyworkers and modalities. Ask yourself what you want to achieve from your massage session and seek out a professional whose technique can address your goals.
If you like deep work, but your overall goal is to relax and indulge, consider a deeply soothing Hot Stone Massage. If you have an ongoing shoulder issue and are tired of feeling pain every time you pull a sweater over your head, consider looking for Structural Integration work that focuses on anatomy and physiology to address the body's overall alignment. If you like a blend of deep work to address areas of particular tension and discomfort with relaxing work elsewhere consider a Therapeutic Massage and communicate with your therapist exactly what areas you would like a little extra focus on.
3) Be open to suggestion: You may have been dealing with an annoying pulling in your upper back and really want your therapist to dig their elbow in between your shoulder blades for almost the entire session but your therapist might recognize that while you are feeling the pull in your upper back, the real problem is that your chest muscles are constricted and pulling forward. The exact point you feel the pain is almost never the root source of what is causing the pain!
Most clients are taken by complete surprise when an area they hadn't noticed turns out to be highly sensitive and causes a relieved sensation where they were actually experiencing the original discomfort. If you are confused as to why your therapist is working in an area you hadn't considered "important," simply ask: "I hadn't even considered that part of my body as needing attention, can you tell me how these two areas are connected?" Most therapists will be happy to explain how to the best of their knowledge and you will leave the session not only feeling better, but with a better understanding of the ways in which your muscles interact with each other.
4) Understand that Massage is an ongoing process: There are, of course, those few circumstances where a client arrives in pain and leaves the session feeling 100% better. As wonderful a feeling as that is, it is less common than one would hope. In reality, your path to musculoskeletal health and vitality is an ongoing one. While a great massage may very well release tension and bring you closer to your ideal alignment, you need to understand that the poor postural habits that got you to the point of pain in the first place aren't going to just disappear because you feel better now.
Repetitive stress from long hours at a computer? It's great that you are feeling looser and more open after your massage but if you're going to plunk yourself right back in front of a computer for hours each day, those tension patterns are simply going to creep back up on you. That is why regularity is a key component in making massage work for you.
What "regularity" will be most effective for you is determined by a combination of personal factors including: your overall health, your propensity for running tense, your personal stress level, the ways in which you most often physically use your body and the amount of self-care you do at home in between sessions. I like to stress to my clients that finding a regular pattern that you can realistically stick with for the long term, taking everything including personal financial circumstances into account, is more important than short term frequency. Getting a massage every week for two months will leave you feeling great, but won't do you much good if after those two months you let two years go by before your next one.
With that being said, when you are addressing long standing pain patterns or injury, it can be very effective to increase the frequency of sessions in the beginning until the immediate pain has been addressed and then reducing the time between sessions to a more sustainable maintenance frequency thereafter.
5) Your job begins after you get off the table: Your CMT's job is to use their massage training and knowledge of the body to help facilitate positive changes to your musculoskeletal system via manual manipulation and stretching techniques. However, once you get off the table your job starts. To get the most lasting effect out of the changes achieved during your session and to facilitate changes to your daily habits into order to stay out of pain in the future it is necessary to maintain a self care routine between sessions.
The first step in this process is to learn to "tune in" to your body. Now that you are feeling opened up and more properly aligned learn to check in with yourself several times daily. Notice how your body feels, how you move and how you hold yourself. With practice you will be able to catch yourself sliding into poor posture when you are tired or mentally stressed or notice that you've started feeling a tense pulling after a certain activity. Becoming aware of how your body reacts to your daily activities and noticing the moment that tension starts will allow you to identify tension and injury causing activities, rectify the issue before it becomes a stickier problem and adjust your physicality accordingly next time.
Secondly, arm yourself with resources to rid tension in your body before it accumulates. A thorough stretching routine daily or several times a week is the single most effective techniques for remaining loose and identifying areas of rigidity.
For knots and triggers that won't go away with stretching I recommend a foam roller and a small ball with a little bit of give, like a tennis ball. Use these to manually roll out the muscles as during a massage and to apply and hold your bodyweight on specific trigger points (knots) in order to loosen them up.
The more often you get massage from a professional, the easier it will be for you to identify where exactly your trigger points are and where to apply pressure.
In addition, regular exercise, adequate sleep, good nutrition and proper hydration will all work to keep your body healthy and more receptive to your therapist's work.
The takeaway: Once you are accustomed to tuning into your body and can begin to easily identify areas that feel stuck or less flexible than usual, you will be able to communicate with your therapist more easily as to what is going on in your body so that your therapist can more readily provide you with the most effective techniques he/she has available. You will begin to notice the ways in which you use your body that cause unnatural tension patterns and adjust your personal ergonomics and self care routines accordingly. As a result, the work you receive on the table will have a more immediate and lasting effect as your body becomes more habituated to feeling balanced and fluid as opposed to feeling stuck and rigid.