Massage Isn't an "Instant Fix" - Setting Realistic Expectations for Your Healing Process

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When I attend social events and people learn I'm a massage therapist, they often like to tell me about their personal experiences with massage, good and bad. Two common expectations I hear regarding massage are:

1. I didn't feel better immediately after the massage so it didn't work, and

2. An hour of massage didn't fully resolve my issue so it wasn't helpful.

Those are pretty high expectations to have of both your body's healing ability, and of the massage therapist (spoiler alert- we're HUMAN!) Focusing on two common complaints- headaches and back pain- here are some analogies I use to respond to the above expectations.

Reviving a Wilted Plant

If you a water a wilted plant, how long does it take until it is fully healthy and vibrant again? Maybe it's only 1 day because it just needed a bit of water and hasn't been wilted for long. But what if that plant has been without water for weeks, was chewed on by an animal (thanks, kitty cat), needs a bigger pot and/or different light? It's going to take a lot longer and more care for it to fully bounce back. The body is the same way. Perhaps you will recover from that ongoing headache after just one massage. Or maybe there are more stress factors causing your headache and it will take more sessions to fully resolve.

Starting a New Exercise Program

When you start a new workout plan, how long does it take to notice results? After a couple of workouts, you likely feel better in some way- perhaps more energized or mentally calmer. But it's unrealistic to expect to meet weight or strength goals within just a workout or two. If you're seeking massage treatment for an ongoing issue, expecting it to be resolved in one session is like expecting a 1/2 mile run to prepare you for a 5k after not running for years. 

With a new exercise program it's also common to feel a bit worse initially- more sore, or perhaps exhausted. These are all normal responses for the body with massage as well. The muscle tissue takes a couple days to repair and rebuild in a healthier form after strenuous exercise or treatment massage. Especially after injury, you may feel more sore soon after a massage. (You should not be bruised or in acute pain) But if you feel better within the next day or two than you did before the massage, it is beneficial. 

Finding the Ideal Teacher

Have you ever struggled to learn a new concept but never quite got it until the right person explained it and all of a sudden it made a lot of sense to you? We all learn in different ways and connect with different teachers based on the approach that works best for us. Massage is similar in that you may need to try multiple massage therapists until you find one that works well for you. Every massage therapist has their own style and training, so if you don't like massage based on the few experiences you've had, it may mean you haven't found the right LMT for you yet. (Or maybe you don't like massage and that's OK too!) Find an LMT with whom you feel at ease, look forward to seeing, enjoy the massage, and feel *better* after every session (for at least a few days) because that's the person who knows how to communicate with your tissue. 

Many of my clients notice significant relief from back spasms and headaches within 24-48 hours. But they also know it may take a few sessions to fully resolve because we've had this conversation. The next time you have a relentless headache or unexpected muscle spasm, give your body a few massage sessions to fully heal. If you feel great after just one visit, that's awesome! If not, notice in what ways you do feel *better* and allow yourself at least 2-3 visits before deciding whether massage is helpful. You deserve it! 

* A Note on feeling "Better:"

To "feel better" doesn't mean to feel perfect or how you felt prior to the current pain, injury or ailment you're experiencing. "Better" means noticing an improvement in how you feel. Perhaps you still have that headache, but it's more tolerable because you're breathing more easily and feel calmer. Or maybe your back is still in spasm, but you can move in a greater range of motion with the same or less pain than before the massage. This is the goal I have as a massage therapist- to make a positive change and facilitate improvement in your system as much as I reasonably can within each session.

 

How Often Should I Get Massage?

This is one of the most common questions I hear and it doesn't have a simple answer. Other massage therapists may have a different perspective on this based on their therapeutic approach. My answer is based on the techniques I use and what experience has shown me to be best for my clients.

The frequency of massage really varies based on personal preference and reason for receiving bodywork, so I'll address these individually.

Wellness Massage

If you are healthy and seek massage for general wellness and maintenance rather than treatment, 1-2 times per month is a good rule of thumb. If you are eagerly anticipating your next session more than a few days in advance, you may consider decreasing the time between sessions.

Personal Preference

For some people, once a week is regular. For others, once a year feels right. It's important to listen to your own body and honor what feels right for you whether that is a few times per month or a few times per year. If you find yourself feeling long overdue for a massage, then it has been too long since your last session. If you feel that you'd rather have your massage next week because you don't really need it today (or feel overloaded with other treatments), it may be a good idea to increase time between visits.

Chronic Pain Management

People living with chronic pain benefit from more frequent massage visits. If the pain is constant or occurs daily, weekly massage is a good idea until improvements are lasting more than a week. For example, if you have chronic neck and shoulder pain at a 6 out of 10 pain level from sitting at a computer, and the pain level drops to 2-4 out of 10 for 3-4 days after your massage but increases again by day 5 or 6, weekly is a good frequency. If you feel better for up to two weeks, then every two weeks is a good plan. Generally, you want to receive your next session before the previous level of discomfort recurs.

Many people find that after a few weeks of weekly massage, they are ready to decrease to every two weeks and so on until they are at the frequency they prefer. It is possible to decrease your chronic pain without weekly massage for life; but if you really want weekly massage, go for it!

Acute Injury and Post-Surgery Swelling

If you are experiencing a lot of swelling and pain either from an injury, auto-accident or recent surgery, scheduling 2 sessions per week for the first 2-4 weeks is a good plan. In my practice, we would focus on reducing the swelling through lymphatic facilitation, releasing energy blocks and calming the nervous system. The bodywork approach is very gentle and I usually don't do massage at this stage because it is contraindicated and/or unpleasant to receive.

Is there such a thing as too much massage?

The type of bodywork that I do requires processing time and continues to work after the session ends. It is possible for the body to feel overloaded with too much bodywork, so we want to give enough time between sessions for the body to process new information. I don't usually recommend massage more frequently than once per week for this reason, though there are exceptions.

One exception is the Acute Injury treatment plan listed above. Another exception is if you are coming twice in one week for two different approaches, ie: one session for a nurturing massage and the other for energy balancing. 

In Summary

1. Listen to your body

2. Come before you are desperately in need

3. Schedule weekly to make progress in healing

4. Schedule monthly for maintenance

5. Ask your bodywork therapist if you are still unsure.

Determining massage frequency is really about listening to your body's needs in relation to the treatment received. Sometimes you may need weekly treatments, while at other times you may prefer monthly visits. These are just some general guidelines that I have found to be helpful in deciding on when to schedule the next session for my clients.