Five Steps to Choosing a Massage Professional

Some of the best inspiration that I get comes directly from my clients.  Since I started writing this blog six months ago, the amount of back and forth with my readers – you – has grown.  This communication has been incredibly useful and has helped me grow as a practitioner.  So to my readers, those who’ve been with me from the start and those recently joining the conversation, I say thank you.My clients often ask questions.  Lots of questions.  From time to time a question is asked loud enough, often enough, and by enough of you that it begs to be given a more formal answer.  This blog post is just that.  I’m answering a question that I get all the time.  As more questions like this arise, you can expect me to do the same.  But for now, read on and enjoy. The Question:
I have chronic pain and I live in __________. How do I find a deep tissue massage therapist?

My Answer:
Massage Therapy is a fast growing industry, and there are a ton of therapists working in the field. For the most part, the majority of them are great at what they do, but very few are specialized in treating chronic pain and injury. Some may say they treat back pain or sports injuries, but this does not mean they are specialized in treating chronic pain and injury. There are short courses that therapists can take on treating symptoms of back pain or sports related injuries. These are great for introducing a therapist who may want to specialize in treating pain and injury. But it takes thousands of hours of hands on, successful treatments before a therapist truly becomes specialized.

Massage therapists are similar to other health professionals, such as doctors and physical therapists. The majority of them work in the generalized field, while only 5%-10% pursue a specialty.  It’s the difference between a general practitioner and an orthopedic surgeon. This makes finding a therapist who is specialized in treating your specific condition kind of like finding a needle in a hay stack. Challenging but not impossible. It will take some work and time on your part, but it is well worth the effort – even if it takes more than a week.

Finding a Therapist.  Five Steps.

1. What does your body need?
What are you feeling? How do you want to feel? Have you seen a doctor or physical therapist with little to no results? Have you been told your only options are pain medications, injections or surgery?

Deep tissue massage therapy can help with many common chronic pain ailments:
Pain in the neck, shoulder, back, hips, knees, and feet
Sciatic pain
Plantar Fasciitis
Carpal Tunnel
Tennis Elbow
Runner’s Knee
Piriformis Syndrome
Scar tissue removal
And many many more…

2. Who are you looking for?
What kind of specialist?  Who can help you get where you’re going? There are many specialties within the field of massage. All of them work for somebody and none of them work for everybody.

I specialize in deep tissue massage with a focus on improving posture by working on the fascial system. I have had success with the majority of my clients. Yet from time to time there are the occasional few for whom my work does not seem to benefit.

3. Who is available in your area?
Google this, yelp this, ask friends, family and co-workers for recommendations, etc.

Post a request for recommendations through social media sites. Join professional groups for massage therapists via Facebook, Linkedin or Google and ask for recommendations there. Great therapists discuss, support and learn from each other through these groups making them a great resource for referrals.

Be willing to drive a little out of the way. I have multiple clients who regularly drive 45-60 minutes for a session.

4. Pick the top  3 – 5 and research them.
Proactively vet your top five.  Before you settle on a therapist, I suggest interviewing them either in person, over the phone or through email. I love it when I am interviewed. I have noticed a greater trust relationship develop between me and the client’s who go through an extensive interview process. Trust is important, you will not find the level of successful treatment without it. If you interview them via email, be patient. Most therapists spend more time in session than on the computer. If they don’t respond within a day or two… call them instead.

Ask them if they have experience successfully treating clients with issues similar to yours. Ask them for references and don’t be afraid to call. Check out their website. Do they write a blog? What type of information do they post? Does it relate to what you are dealing with? Do they have reviews on Yelp or Google? Do any of the reviewers talk about having similar issues treated successfully?

5. Spend at least four to eight sessions with your favorite.
Once you’ve done this and you notice that it doesn’t fit or feel right, spend a few sessions with another. I generally tell my clients to commit to at least four, and even better, eight sessions. By the fourth session, most can feel whether or not the work we are doing is beneficial for them.  Best case scenario: you develop a relationship with a therapist for the long-term and you share a journey together.  You get to know them, they get to know you, and your process is hyper personal, geared exactly for you.

My 6th and special bonus tip.
When you find that great therapist and they help you move and feel better, pay it forward by telling the world. Tell your friends and family. Post your experience in detail on social media sites. Write them a review on both Yelp and Google – again be detailed about your experience. Offer to be a reference for potential clients. Your therapist relies heavily on word of mouth to survive and thrive as a business and so does the next person in pain who is seeking help.

Note: I wrote this list to help you best find a deep tissue massage therapist for your needs. This is the same advice I regularly give clients when seeking a family or specialty doctor, physical therapist, personal trainer or any other health care provider. Taking the extra time to build and develop a relationship of trust with your health care provider will pay dividends in your long term health and vitality.


8 Replies to “Five Steps to Choosing a Massage Professional”

  1. Thank you, this was a very interesting article. I spoke on this topic as part of a conference last year for elite athletes. I would also add specifically that in their research the client confirm that the therapist is licensed/certified in the area they work. I see that you recommend a 4-8 session commitment, but I personally think that in some cases you might know in the first session if the MT is NOT the right one for you, as you will experience their touch, professionalism, knowledge of the body, etc. in the first 30 minutes and know if the relationship isn’t going to work.

    While writing the presentation, I was actually going through the process myself and having a hard time trying to find someone in Louisiana (I live in NY) to treat my low back/hip pain. It might just be there, because post Katrina it’s very hard to find ANY decent health services/providers, but at one point I went to a PT office where an MT was working and he wasn’t even licensed with the state!

    So after many phone calls and unreturned messages (I even called a local massage school with very little help!) I found a woman who claimed to be proficient in addressing chronic pain and I did interview her on the phone first, as I also highly recommend. I knew in the first 10-15 minutes I wasn’t going to get what I needed from the session. The massage, oh how awkward and NOT therapeutic or even relaxing it was! I don’t even feel that she addressed the structures that were the cause of my pain/discomfort, and she put my limbs in such a strange position, I wasn’t sure WHAT she was trying to accomplish. At that point I was just trying to at least get some relaxation from it and was thankful I only committed to an hour and not 90 min!

    My take from this is well, don’t commit to too much time initially. Also, perhaps I should have asked more detail about her training (I did confirm she was licensed, but that’s simply not sufficient), not to get caught up in specific modalities, but rather conditions they treat (I did ask, but perhaps she didn’t answer sincerely) and whether or not she performs some sort of assessment before the hands on work to know WHERE to treat.

    I hope this was helpful!

    1. Thank you Teresa,

      You make some great points. Especially about the licensing. Which is a huge issue from state to state and in some states even county to county.

      My 4-8 session commitment is based solely on my personal experience. Many clients come in with no idea how massage will help or how long it will take. There tends to be an underlying feeling for many them that they will see immediate results from just a single visit. Which is very rarely the case. Committing to four or more sessions helps set a tone that it will take some time. My experience is that by the third or fourth session, most people are feeling better. Although I have had a few that took up to eight sessions. I do agree with what you said. Sometimes, you just know after a single visit that a particular therapist is just not going to work for you. In which I suggest trust your instincts.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. I think they are shared with many many people, and very helpful.

      Jesse James Retherford

      1. Thanks for all you do. I am also a LMT , teach Pilates and weightlifting. Lately I have been doing less massage because I am not able to help people as much as I believe I should. I want to pursue more training in deep fascial -type work, now that so much more is known about fascia and the nervous system, etc… What training would you recommend?

        Thanks for your help on this!

        1. Hi Tracy,

          Thank you for the great question and compliment.

          “I am not able to help people as much as I believe I should”
          This is a question I have also struggled with as a therapist. Here is what I have found holds true for me, and my feeling is it is true with most therapists. We are helping our clients in ways we could ever comprehend or give ourselves credit for. Healing is not something we can do for our clients. We facilitate their healing process, by providing a space in which they and their bodies can feel safe within. Ultimately healing is the responsibility of the individual client. We can guide them, but they must allow themselves to heal. And pain is always much deeper than the physical.

          Any therapist with a great passion and desire to truly help their clients tend to naturally provide this kind of environment. The fact that you care enough to seek out knowledge and training to best help your clients speaks volumes about how much you are actually helping your clients. We will always be limited in how much we can help our clients by their willingness to be helped.

          Now with all that said, there is obviously great relief we can provide a client on the physical level, as long as the space mentioned above is provided. I cannot speak for most of the training that is available. I have very little formal training. My background comes from studying exercise sciences, 13 years as a personal trainer and coach, treating my own issues of pain and dysfunction, and thousands of hours of hands on work. So I can only speak for what has worked for me.

          I learned much of the body work techniques by spending hundreds of hours doing self massage using a foam roller, soft ball, lacrosse ball, and golf ball. I had a really goo understanding of functional and movement patterns. I would spend hours at a time tracing pain patterns in my body, and then experimenting with those same patterns with my clients. At this point I was doing free student massages out of my studio while going to school. Although I still consider everything I do to be an experiment. I found that there were commonalities in fascial patterns between most people. And by working these pain patterns, they got relief. I also found that the less I “tried” to resolve a pain problem, the greater the relief they had.

          The one course I have taken that has really resonated with me is Thomas Myer’s, Anatomy Trains. It really helped solidify the pain patterns I had found in my own work, and does a great job of mapping it out. Other than that, I can only recommend that you experiment and give yourself credit for being a beautiful healer with a tremendous amount of potential.

          Let me know if you have any more questions. Thanks again.

          Jesse James Retherford

          1. This is a helpful article for several reasons, including the whole notion of viewing massage and bodywork as healthcare decisions. I have seen some evidence that suggests the collagen component of fascia responds to gentle tension held in a sustained manner. This would seem to be in contrast to the kind of forceful pressure that I have encountered when someone claims to be doing deep tissue-style work. And it seems that a stretch or a release in the collagen component of the tissue has a longer lasting effect than does a release in the elastic component. Any thoughts to share on this?

  2. My primary issue with the article is the use of the term “Deep Tissue”. There is no such thing. It is neither a modality, philosophy/approach, or set of techniques. Ask 100 therapists the definition, scope, and techniques of “deep tissue” and you will get quite a few different answers.

    On the question of training, there is no way to determine the quality of someone’s work from training unfortunately. This is in any area/field. There are better and not as good students. As a client – not knowing the technical aspects of a modality, it is difficult to determine the quality of a therapist.

    Additionally experience after training is essential. Very few deep/quality training programs in massage have certification/testing/internship. This makes determining the quality of the therapist more difficult. I think the only way to make a subjective descision is via the “interview” (mentioned earlier) and the manner of progress of the treatment. Initially it is usually a subjective choice – to select a therapist.

    1. Hi Sid,

      Thanks for the comments.

      Finding a quality therapist that will address a clients particular needs can be quite challenging. In this post, I was hoping to offer a little guidance to the process.

      Your issue with the term “deep tissue” is the exact reason I like to use it. It is an incredibly generic term. As such, it includes vertually all modalities of body work. Also, I am attempting to communicate with clients and not so much to other therapists. My average client does not know Neuromuscular Therapy, Myofascial Release, Trigger Point Therapy, Rolfing, or any other modality of deep tissue body work. They don’t know the terminology. But they do know Deep Tissue. It is the term they will most likely search on Google. My goal is to speak to the client where they are at. And once they come into my clinic, then I can educate them on what exactly I do.

      Jesse James Retherford

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