Growth Spurt

 Image courtesy of Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual; Vol. 1, Travell and Simons. 


Here I sit with my thumbs buried in a woman’s neck. A swarm of thoughts arises: Am I even on the trigger point? I’m not causing kickback pain, am I? Isn’t there a better way to position my thumbs so they don’t hurt so darn much?

I guess it can be a bit overwhelming when a wish actually comes true. Just the other week I stated that I was feeling burned out, uninspired. I longed for massage work beyond Swedish and the “basic” deep tissue. (In spa-land, that often turns out to be firm Swedish to the tension trifecta: back, neck and shoulders. And it can become boring.) 

Frustrated, I decided to stop dwelling on where I thought I should be in my young massage practice and turned my attention toward life things, namely starting The Gut Balance Revolution diet and revving up my social life. I needed to get happy. So I did. 

And a funny thing happened. Suddenly, there was an uptick of clients at work who, whether they knew it or not, needed trigger point therapy done to them. It seemed like I couldn’t go even a day without happening on a point or two – or even more. Clients reported, often with surprise, immediate relief. 

Since massage school, I’ve been fascinated by trigger point therapy; that is, from a respectful distance. This is all it is: a band within a muscle that continues to fire or stay contracted even if the rest of the muscle remains relaxed. It’s most often caused by overuse or trauma. And the cool and baffling part about a trigger point is that it often refers pain to another part of the body. That’s why I was so intimidated by it; I was afraid of working on the wrong spot. Here’s a great overview of trigger point therapy

At work trigger point therapy isn’t mentioned in my advertised list of modalities; I just didn’t feel comfortable with it when I graduated from massage school. Back in the day, we’d get paired up during class and instructed to seek out trigger points, but I was paradoxically too unskilled to find them. I needed the hands-on experience in order to really learn the material. 

Over time at work, I started collecting the pain patterns, one by one, as clients’ bodies would present them to me. But the comfort never really secured a toehold…until just a couple of weeks ago. 

Enter Anne*. Anne is a regular client who A) has chronic pain and B) also has an amazing sense of body awareness and a knowledge of anatomy. This is because 1) she’s extremely astute and 2) she’s had oodles of bodywork done. 

In short, Anne was my worst nightmare. 

I’d worked on her about a year ago, and she moved on to our collection of other MT’s. Indubitably she wasn’t thrilled with my work at the time. Indubitably she was seeking someone who could do trigger point work. 

By some scheduling fluke, I imagine, she was scheduled with me early this month. She rattled off the sites of her pain, and I took in as much as I could. But something was different this time: me. Armed with recent success stories, I felt at least somewhat confident that I could resolve at least some of her pain. 

And two levator scapulae trigger points and one suboccipital trigger point later, I did. She rebooked with me two weeks later. And then she saw me again today. 

Today I was in over my head, I’ll admit. During the session as I resolved one trigger point after another, Anne requested that I clear up every one that I could find. The problem was, she had a good 10 or so in the right side of her neck alone. I explained to her that working on too many points in one spot might cause kickback pain to flare, but she wanted me to keep going.  

So there I sat, tentatively hopeful, a little fearful and wholeheartedly grateful for such a willing teacher. I reflected on the past few weeks and decided that change is possible and that faith and patience are crucial for that change to take place. When my life was ready, I was presented with opportunities. And just like that, my career is thrilling once again. 

One little plug, and I’ll let you go. My rather sordid experience with the gut-balancing diet is spottily documented on Instagram. I share not-great photos of some of the dishes I’ve created along the way. Check me out @jlew57, if you’d like. (Way to sell it, Joanne!) 
*Of course, the client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.  

The Strangest Job I’ve Ever Loved

 Business is picking up at the spa where I work. Don’t get me wrong; it all still feels fragile, as though one powerful sneeze will blow clients away again. But our regular clients are starting to resurface from the hubbub that is summer. 

Lately I’ve been feeling stale, overplayed. Maybe most of those clients really do need similar treatment (back/neck/shoulders, etc.). Or maybe I need to be the one to break the pattern somehow. 

The humdrum of tired mediocrity took a detour today. One client’s needs gave me the license to change my entire progression. It became a myofascial trigger-point session, which meant in this case that I was focused on one shoulder for most of the 50 minutes. (Trigger point work is fascinating to me. So, you think you have carpal tunnel syndrome? Maybe not! Maybe it’s a trigger point buried under your shoulder blade in the subscapularis muscle. Who would have thunk it?!) I felt something in me light up as I searched for the source of the client’s pain, which happened to be about four inches from where he felt the pain itself. Not every client is begging for clinical work. This one was. Lucky me! 

Another client today, a tough-looking professional mover, didn’t look so tough as I finished the session. I massaged his temples and marveled (silently, of course!) at how peaceful he looked, like a sleeping child. 

It struck me then. Somewhere along the way, I forgot. I forgot how beautiful each person is when I regard their faces from my perch at the top of their heads. They seem to regress in age right in front of me. Maybe it’s because their eyes are closed. Maybe it’s the vantage point from which I peer at them. Maybe something mystic or spiritual happens. It doesn’t matter. Back when I was fresh, new, inspired, a starry-eyed part of me would exclaim (to myself), “She could be a movie star!” But along the way, unbridled wonder and inspiration have been replaced with good intentions, genuine attempts and, ultimately, the dull acceptance of feeling little more than relief that the session is over.

You could say I’m a little burned out, I guess. A tough spring, slow work, piling-up debt and some work drama may be taking a bit of a toll. 

As usual, talking myself through the situation calms me down. I’ve felt burned out before, and I’ve overcome it. I’ll overcome it this time, too, I’m sure. It may be as simple as learning new techniques and remembering and appreciating how delightfully strange my job can be. Where else could I say that I hold people’s snoring heads in my hands as part of my job? Snoring, for cry-eye! It’s surreal when I give it some thought. One can’t do that in an office setting without some bewildered looks, I’ll tell you what. My desk-bound former self would never believe current me if I told her that I massage people for a living. She’d tell me I’m too scared, too awkward for a field like that. But there was a string of unlikely events…

And here I am. I’m broke, sure, but far from poor. I’ve met and worked on hundreds of people who appreciate any help I can provide. When I push myself to take the lessons presented to me, I learn every day. And hey. When all else fails I can remind myself that I knock out complete strangers for a living (so to speak, of course). And they come to, say they feel amazing and come back for more. How weird and wonderful is that?

Massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there techniques you use to break out of a rut? I’d love to hear from you! 

13 Lifesavers Massage Therapists Keep Handy

  I’m horrified to report that last night I discovered three tiny warts on my hand. Gah, it’s an occupational hazard I was hoping never to experience! As I dabbed a liquid bandage onto the spots after freezing them dead with this frightening spray I bought at the drugstore, I thought about the many products that help me get through the day. Mind you, I’m not getting a kickback for any product mentions, and I’m not even sure it’s all right to list brand names here. So if I’m in the wrong, please feel free to educate me….

Toothbrush, toothpaste, breath strips and gum In massage school, my foundations instructor mentioned that the day before or the day that we massage, we shouldn’t eat strong-tasting foods. Considering that I work five days a week and lurve my garlic and onions, that’s just not an option. So all of the above-listed items are key. Breath strips are my most recent find. They’re small but mighty and spare me from sounding like I’m chewing my cud. Gum is reserved for times I really need to brush but can’t. I buy a softer-smelling, pleasing flavor and only chew a half stick at a time to reduce obnoxiousness by half. 

Barrettes, hair ties I’m sorry. Show me a spa with coiffed massage therapists, and I’ll show you the harrowing behind-the-scenes that is required to give a great massage while still looking pretty. It’s an endless battle for them. I simply can’t do it. In my world, makeup is minimal, bangs are often clipped back, and hair MUST be off my neck, or I exit the therapist’s room with makeup melted down to my knees and wet hair, much resembling a dirty puddle. 

Mini fan this relates to the hair ties. It’s teeny and doesn’t pack much of a punch, but that wee machine keeps me sane each session. I’m a sweat-er, plain and simple, and I’ve taught myself how and when to position that sucker on me (and not my client) without the client knowing. 

Traveler’s manicure kit From nipping surprise hangnails to trimming and filing nails, I use at least one item from my kit daily. (Have I ever mentioned that I often have to file my fingertips in this profession? Strange, but true!)

Burt’s Bees Hand Salve If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “How can your skin be dry and cracking? You’re rubbing oil onto your hands all day,” I’d have a good dollar or two by now. We have to lather up all the way past our elbows twice as many times as we massage, before and after each session. This salve is as sleek as satin, and smells like a field of lavender. Don’t be discouraged by the price; a tin should last you at least one winter. 

Coconut oil This all-natural product was a big help for my forearms last winter. Again, we’re scrubbing up quite often throughout the day, and during the cold months I was alarmed to discover that the skin on my arms felt a lot like tweed. It took two weeks during my back-mending hiatus to get that skin feeling like…well, skin. While it doesn’t do much for cracked fingertips, coconut oil aborbs quickly, smells warm and comforting and, best of all, doesn’t sting chapped skin like a mother-trucker. *Ahem!* 

New Skin liquid bandage I learned this just today. Fellow MT’s would tell me to dab some New Skin on the cracks in my thumbs, and I ignored them…because it peels right off and feels scratchy to the client, doesn’t it? Well, that may be true for the generic brand I bought last winter, but the New Skin I just got today actually feels like skin, so much so that I dabbed on some extra to make sure it was there. 

Non-latex gloves These made today’s three massages possible. Not pleasant, mind you, but possible. (The liquid bandage purchase happened after my shift.) Therapists and clients are pleasantly surprised that a massage with surgical gloves feels almost like the gloves are not even there. But they come with a caveat for sweat-ers like me. You’d be amazed by how much sweat one hand generates in a 50-minute session! It made for some embarrassing squeaks during one of my appointments today when some trapped air escaped the glove all deflating-balloon-like. 

Good shoes I can’t emphasize this one enough. I need steady, supportive shoes to do good work. We’re not just on our feet all day, we’re lunging…All. Day. If my shoes don’t fit properly, I’ll know within the first five minutes of my first session. It makes for a long session when you’re uncomfortable on your feet….

Zinc lozenges Surprise! Here’s a fourteenth item that I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention. Yes, they make food and beverages taste weird. Yes, there’s controversy as to whether they even work. But placebo effect be damned, they work for me. And considering all of the colds a massage therapist is trapped in a room with for 50+ minutes at a time, she or he needs a trusty line of defense. Good-quality vitamins in general are critical for the various ickies that float around, year ’round. 

This list covers the basics. The above items keep me as calm and collected as possible to get me through the day with at least some grace (which says a lot since I’m naturally ungraceful). Fellow massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there any must-haves that you rely on? 

Down Time

 It’s June, and business is slow in the massage industry. After all, getting a massage is nice and all, but it simply can’t compete with family graduation parties and warm-weather activities. Because family and YOLO, amirite? 

Blah, I’m right. And what’s worse, I just used YOLO in a blog post. Desperate times….

In the franchise where I work, the inertia has been compounded, and not for seasonal, jumping-off-a-pier-into-the-lake-instead-of-getting-massaged reasons. Corporate had us do a mass hiring of full-time massage therapists early this year. I guess they saw something in our numbers that encouraged them to grow our spa. But then they raised prices, losing some of our regular clients. And then warm weather hit….

And splat. 

Now that we have more therapists than work, the front desk staff have (basically) been making us take turns either getting called off or being sent home early. As a result, our spa is a little hungry, a little cutthroat, energetically speaking, an unwelcome pest in what’s supposed to be a nurturing environment. 

Hunger drives us toward some of our baser instincts. I’m unearthing some competitive parts of myself, as well. Last week I did six and a half hours of massage, about 40% of what I used to do. I’m boxed in by physical limitations, as temporary as they may be, as I continue to recover from a recent back injury. Two months after my month-long medical leave, I’m still doing fewer massages in a row before a break, and fewer massages per day, doctor’s orders. So between massages (during seemingly endless down time), I find myself glancing through our schedule to see if my former clients wandered to other therapists, quit their memberships or just put massage on pause. 

With so much time to think (and being my own worst enemy), it’s hard not to berate myself during slow times like these. She lost her touch during that long hiatus, the critics within me hiss. She’s just not as good anymore. Yet, when I take a deep breath and muffle the negativity, I remind myself that new clients have been rebooking with me. I just have to practice my faith and patience. Patience and faith. 

When my life-condition is high enough, I can see that it’s just a watershed period in my young career. It all looks like a mess right now, but something invisible continues to propel me forward and protect me. Maybe this time marks a new beginning, somehow. Those lost clients taught me everything they could; I’m ready for my next set of lessons. Something to that effect. 

I worked on a professional athlete the other day who had a shocking amount of scar tissue built up in his hamstrings near his glutes. He was as surprised as I was; despite all of the massage and physical therapy he’d had in his career, nobody’d ever pointed that out to him before. His hip is a constant complaint, so the two elements are likely connected. I’m hoping we can learn more together the next time he comes in, solve the mystery to free that hip. Maybe he and the other new clients will point me toward my next area of focus. Will I get more comfortable with myofascial work? Branch out and finally explore energy work like reiki? Where I am now is only the beginning. It’s something to appreciate. I can take this profession in myriad directions, tailor it to be what I want it to be.  

Yet, the other day a thought popped into my head: My job is getting in the way of my career. I love the spa where I work, overall…but if it stays this slow, I’ll never be able to afford taking continuing education classes. This week (with desperation overriding my rules) I’m picking up two shifts (potentially eight consecutive work days), and if that trend continues, I won’t have time to take classes, anyway. One of the reasons I took on massage therapy was because of the flexibility. But how truly flexible am I when I’m bound by bills and debt? 

This is just a phase, I tell myself. Things will get better…by Autumn, sure, but before then, somehow. Good fortune will come to me. I just have to refresh my determination, clean up my act anywhere I can, stay the course and believe. 

Getting a Massage? Speak up! 

Yipes! I’m a week behind my goal of posting once every other Wednesday-ish. In the beginning of May, I took a short but significant trip to La Jolla, CA for a wedding. One day, I hope to write more about that solo trip…still processing! And this month is flying by at breakneck speed. But tonight I want to write a quick post. And I’m breaking my usual standard of editing the post to death before and after posting it…I think/hope. Let’s take a leap off the cuff for a moment, shall we?

About a year before the notion of becoming a massage therapist even crossed my mind, I took a mini-trip with a friend and got a massage.

It was, hands-down, the worst massage I’ve ever received.

I was still fairly new to the whole massage experience and booked a couple’s session with my friend. My therapist asked me what was experiencing tension, and I said my shoulders (especially my right one) were bothering me.

We got on the tables, and our therapists got started. Soon, I dearly wished I were alone in the room with my therapist; having my friend present made me too embarrassed to state that what my therapist was doing was causing me searing pain. His idea of addressing my shoulders was to deliver the most pressure possible to the area and to crank on my shoulder blades so they “winged,” then to dig around under them. Sometimes “winging” the shoulder blade is what is called for, but he didn’t do much else during the session. Never once did he ask how his pressure felt, and never once did he adjust his technique as I flinched and cringed. It was 90 minutes of hell.

I came out of there red and bruised. That night, I felt flu-like symptoms…nausea, chills, a low-grade fever. He hadn’t advised me to drink plenty of water, so being the newbie that I was, I didn’t. And I felt awful. I didn’t know what to do to alleviate the pain, so I took a hot shower. That only made me more miserable. (Ice is soothing after invasive, deeper work, I now know.)

Writing this, I feel anger toward him for obvious reasons, but also anger toward myself. Why didn’t I feel comfortable enough to speak up? My friend probably wouldn’t have judged me, and my therapist probably would have lightened up. I’m sure he’d heard from other clients that he was heavy-handed.

Consider my lesson as your cautionary tale. If you’re getting a massage and something doesn’t feel right, please, please speak up! Here’s a little laundry list for you to assess throughout the session:

  • Is the temperature in the room and on the table ok?
  • Do your face and neck feel comfortable in the face cradle?
  • Is your massage therapist communicating with you?
  • Is the pressure ok?
  • Is the technique comfortable for you, or is he or she stretching you past your comfort level (literally and figuratively)?
  • Do you feel yourself flinching, guarding or holding your breath?
  • Do you feel fear?
  • Do you know what to expect and do after the session?
  • Do you know how to stretch or strengthen the areas that are bothering you?

If something feels wrong or unclear, your massage therapist will want to know so he or she can make it right. Don’t be shy or awkward like me, and don’t be overwhelmed by the “authority” of the person working on you. You have the power to help make your massage a pleasant and positive experience.

Child’s Play

X marks the spot
Follow the dotted line
Two more steps, and squeeze!

-popular children’s rhyme

One of my regular clients saw me last week for a Swedish massage. The session was about one-third over, and I briefly worked on his head and neck to transition to the other side of his back. His voice blissful, he joked, “Someday I’d like to have my scalp worked on the entire time.” I suggested that we devote more time to scalp work during that session. With the excitement of a child sleeping over at a friend’s house, he requested 30 additional minutes on his posterior scalp and neck.

For a glancing moment, I wondered if I had enough in my newish repertoire to complete 30 minutes on his scalp. Beyond Swedish moves and my creativity, I only have shallow knowledge of the meridians of Eastern-based bodywork; it could have been a targeted session had I known more. But this client had made it clear in the past that he loved scalp work, plain and simple. So I riffed on what I’d done before, and then it became child’s play. Success! He soon fell asleep.

Amidst my client’s peaceful snoring and with my task well underway, I found myself drifting into memories of games I’d play as a little girl with my friends and neighbors, like when we’d pretend to crack eggs on the top of each other’s heads by using our pinched-together and spreading-apart fingers and exaggerated sound effects.

Wow. We were “cracking” on a major pressure point (found in modalities like acupressure and shiatsu), I then realized. I learned in massage school that applying firm, steady pressure to Governing Vessel (GV) 20 is like hitting a reset button on the nervous system. It is believed that depressive symptoms can be lessened with compression there, and there are numerous other reported benefits. EFT/tapping also focuses on that spot to help break through emotional holding patterns and much more.

So, that little trick we’d play was a potentially powerful healer. 

We goofy kids were on to something.

Come to think of it, a lot of little games and tricks we’d play on each other involved touch. Remember giving each other “Indian burn”? (Sorry, I’m not sure there’s a PC term for that.) We’d place both hands on a friend’s (frenemy’s?) forearm and repeatedly wring in opposite directions, causing redness, an alarming amout of heat and an indignant protest from the unsuspecting victim. It was myofascial release that we were doing (albeit a very painful version of it), “melting” the connective tissue on their forearm with friction and the warmth of our hands.

A similar principle could be applied to the “rose garden” we’d plant on each other’s forearms. Digging, plucking, raking and other irritating actions done with our hands and nails evoked the red “roses,” AKA inflammation and vasodilation. And maybe “noogies” also apply. (Yipes, in retrospect, we were a bunch of mean kids!) Little did we know we were performing actions that are connected to powerful healing modalities.

Considering that ouchy “garden” and that sore, scrubbed scalp now leads my mind to deep-tissue frictioning and even Graston Technique®, a series of quick, forceful little strokes with a hard plastic or metal device to break up scar tissue, induce inflammation and promote healing — although probably not applied to the top of one’s head. (I don’t practice GT, as I’d have to be certified. But I’ve had it done to eliminate plantar fasciitis. In a word, OWIE. But it worked!)

Oh! Remember this?

Crisscross, applesauce
Spiders crawling up your back
Tight squeeze
Cool breeze
Now you’ve got the chills!

That little poem was accompanied by a flourish of thumps, X’s, squiggles and squeezes performed on the friend’s back and shoulders. Barring the awful “breeze” (blowing on the friend’s ear), we were giving our first chair massage, incorporating basic Swedish techniques like tapotement, effleurage and petrissage.

I’m sure there are other little tricks we’d play that are buried in my memory. (If you can think of any, feel free to comment; maybe we can figure out health benefits together!)

That young age, around 7-10, was a time of discovery, including learning the effects certain stimuli have on our skin. It was ok to touch each other back then as part of play. It makes me sad that in the media touch is often associated with sex or violence. As mammals we crave touch, we need it…so humans pay for massage and bodywork. If only we adults could remember those discoveries made in our formative years…despite even our cruelest intentions, we made amazing massage therapists.

A PSA on Back Pain

Oh, Canada. I don’t know much about you, but stumbling upon this informative video about low back pain that was funded by the government of Ontario gives me the sense that you care about your people. I wish I’d found the video sooner….

Back in early February I “threw out” my low back, a debilitating and scary event for anyone, and even more so for someone who depends on her body to earn a living (yipes, I mean as a massage therapist!). Fear moved into my heart, and it squeezed out most of my knowledge from massage school about acute low back pain.

At the end of the month, I blew out my back again at work and was forced to take a month’s leave to repair, rehabilitate and rest. David Bowie’s mournful “Space Oddity” became my soundtrack as I floated in a bubble of fear and uncertainty. It’s amazing how irrelevant I can feel when I’m not working, and how lost I become when out of contact with friends and coworkers.

Things started to get better. And then they didn’t. When my back went out a third time in the middle of March, my doctor ordered an MRI, which I’d been curious about for a while. The imaging center sent me home with a CD of raw images and the promise to get the written report to my doctor soon.

And then there was radio silence. Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Something I’ve learned is that uncertainty can breed insanity. I called and called my doctor, but he said the report still hadn’t arrived. A week after the scan, I was bored. I was curious. Nobody was telling me what was going on, so I popped the CD into my computer and started clicking.

And this is what I learned: if you’re untrained in medical imaging and you have the chance to see a scan of your body with nobody there to interpret it, please don’t take that chance. I compared my images against what I found online (another no-no) and found a bulging disc. What was even more alarming was the dramatic curve of my L-4, L-5 and sacral bones. There it was, the confirmation that I was a hot mess. Holy beans, I had scoliosis all these years and never knew it. No wonder things are so messed up for me now. 

A crazed weekend and more phone calls to the doctor got me nowhere. Finally, I brought the CD to my physical therapist. She explained that the imaging specialist may have positioned me crookedly on the table, and that the spine is meant to be that mobile. As for the bulging disc (actually two), she told me that they may or may not be the reason for the pain.

She showed me an article with an enlightening graph. A study was done on a number of symptom-free subjects of all ages. Even in their 20s, around 35% had some signs of disc deterioration. That percentage takes a leap to 70% in the 40s. And these people were walking around, feeling fine and whatnot.

This led me to do my own research and find the video that the good people of Ontario funded. It advises against getting an MRI unless absolutely necessary. And I now understand why. This stuff messes with our heads. It can lead to psychosomatic symptoms and further dysfunction. And here’s even more proof.

For some, ignorance truly is bliss. I wonder what happened to those asymptomatic people in the MRI study once they caught a glimpse of their images. Did they feel a little stiffer, a little achier the following morning? Yep, I thought so.

The mind is a powerful, wondrous thing. As for me, I got the official word from my doctor that I was just overcoming back strain. He told me not to worry about the bulging discs and to keep strengthening my core. Motion is lotion, so all we can do is keep moving, through back pain and in life.