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Bridging the Divide: Spa Massage and Clinical Applications

30 Aug 2016
I am the first to say it out loud: I have been around for a long time. I am a geezer.

I began my massage therapy career in the early 1980s in Washington State. At that time if I had wanted to open a business, zoning laws would have required me to locate it on the same block with the triple X movie theaters and adult bookstores. Oh, we’ve come such a long, long way.

My very first phone call with a prospective client concluded when she told me she had Guillain-Barre syndrome, and I couldn’t say whether it was safe to work with her. Frankly, I didn’t know how to spell the name, so I couldn’t even look it up. Not surprisingly, I came to the conclusion that I was not adequately educated about massage therapy for people who were not perfectly healthy.

This drove my passion to find out everything I could about massage for people who struggle with their health. I became a teacher, a textbook author, and a continuing education provider; my field of specialty is pathology as it relates to massage therapy.

Back in the 80s there was a perceived gap between people who envisioned massage therapy as something purely clinical to be administered in health care settings, and those who saw it as a personal service to be delivered in more recreational venues. I never bought into this sense of dichotomy, because I think we can all agree that welcomed touch is therapeutic, no matter where you are. And—more importantly, people who struggle with their health go to spas and resorts and cruise ships and franchises, and lots of places where spa applications happen. Why shouldn't they—it’s a healthy choice! So the divide between “clinical massage” and “recreational massage” has always seemed arbitrary to me.

This also means that the idea that a person who wants to specialize in spa-type massage doesn’t have to be well educated about pathology is false. Any client, even those who look vibrant and healthy, could be dealing with a condition that challenges them.

In the last two decades I have watched the massage + spa industry grow, even as other sectors of the economy shrank. I have seen new levels of professionalism and expertise develop, especially around working with my favorite target group: the clients who make massage therapists come to me with stories that start, “I have a client who…” Spas that cater to customers who are not in perfect health bridge the gap between clinical and recreational massage. They also reflect the very earliest traditions of health care, and it is an honor to be part of that history.

I am thrilled to be an educator during this time of growth, and - geezer or no - I intend to continue to be helpful to my profession for many years to come.

By Ruth Werner

About the Author
Ruth Werner is Board Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (BCTMB), and a member of the American Massage Therapy Association, the International Fascia Research Society, and the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education. She has written numerous articles for massage trade journals and several books on subjects ranging from ethics to pharmacology. Ruth is the author of the textbook, A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology, and writes a column for Massage and Bodywork Magazine called Pathology Perspectives.

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