Sensual. Blissful. Relaxing. All these words come to mind when thinking about a massage. It’s time to add another to the list: healing. Medical massage has become recognized in the medical community as a treatment to ease pain, improve range of motion, and encourage recuperation after injury.
Although it was virtually unknown in the United States until the 1980s, massage for medical purposes has been a popular treatment modality in Europe and Russia since as early as the 1700s. In fact, for the better part of two centuries, massage was used almost exclusively as a treatment for pain in Russia. In the 1800s and early 1900s, American and European doctors began to investigate the benefits of massage, and it was taught in some medical institutions and began to be offered by practitioners. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union, though, that average Americans became aware of massage as a medical entity.
Even today, when most people think of massage they think of relaxation. There are, however, important differences between massage therapy and Swedish or deep tissue relaxation massage. While the goals of relaxation massage are to ease tight muscles, relieve stress, and induce a sense of well-being, massage therapy is designed to use a specific set of procedures developed to treat a specific symptom and achieve a specific, treatment-oriented goal. For example, if a patient is experiencing swelling in a limb due to fluid retention, the massage therapist will use specific techniques designed to move extra fluid out of the limb and decrease the swelling. This requires skill, training, and anatomical and medical knowledge above and beyond what is needed to practice relaxation massage.
Massage therapy has many practical medical applications. When performed by a qualified professional under the direction of a physician, it can alleviate pain caused by trauma and automobile accidents, repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow, back and neck pain, migraines, injuries induced by exercise, pain associated with pregnancy, and a host of other ailments. Although it often does not make the cause of the pain, such as a compressed disk in the vertebral column, go away, it can improve symptoms significantly in many patients and reduce discomfort while the primary injury heals.
In most states, any massage therapist can claim to practice massage for medical purposes. For this reason, it is extremely important that potential patients carefully evaluate therapists to ensure that they have adequate training and are in fact qualified to treat the patient’s complaint. The American Medical Massage Association is a well-known professional body that certifies massage therapists and provides ethical guidelines and continuing education to ensure that licensed therapists stay up-to-date in their practice. Potential patients should look for a certified therapist who has specific training to treat the patient’s injury.
Insurance coverage of massage therapy varies dramatically from company to company and from state to state. Currently, the state of Washington is the only state in the U.S. that requires insurance companies to allow massage therapists to be contracted providers with health insurance firms, and it is unclear whether the recent Affordable Care Act will make provisions for massage therapists. Insured patients should contact their providers prior to seeking treatment to ensure that care will be covered.