or a variety of reasons, the medical benefits of
massage therapy have for years been overshadowed by the practice's psychological and holistic claims. Being lumped together with such other "alternative" activities as hypnotherapy and aromatherapy automatically generated doubts about massage in the minds of many. Doubts about the "touchy-feely" aspects of massage steered patients away and kept massage mired in the murky world of alternative medicine.
While the majority of the medical world continued to lump massage together with acupuncture and other often unregulated practices, two disciplines ignored the trend and turned unapologetically to massage for its medical benefits. These defenders of massage can be found in two places: the maternity ward and the sports training room. Midwives, nurses, and finally doctors recognized the medical benefits of massage during pregnancy and especially during labor:
- Massage prepares muscles and tissues for impending exercise or exertion
- Massage promotes endorphin release in the brain, helping to dull pain
- Massage promotes healing in injured or stressed muscles and tissues
These same benefits have been known and accepted in the world of sports medicine for decades. You'd be hard pressed to find a professional or college quarterback who doesn't receive massage treatment on a regular basis. Not only does massage assist in the body's recovery from injury, it also serves as a pre-exercise warm-up mechanism, and also speeds the recovery of muscles stressed in the weight room. To the athletic trainer, there has never been anything "alternative" about massage therapy.
Acceptance Spreads in the 1990's
Slowly, other medical disciplines began to take notice. Passages extolling the virtues of massage can be found in a wide range of respected medical journals such as: The International Journal of Neuroscience (1996), The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science (1996), The Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy (1994), the American Journal of Pain Management (1992) and the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (1992).
While the medical community was giving massage therapy a second look, the American public fueled the industry's growth through repeat visits and word-of-mouth endorsement. Between the years 1997 and 2000, the percentage of American adults visiting a massage therapist doubled to 16% according to a survey commissioned by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). Furthermore, massage patients are quite loyal: they average seven visits per year, according to the 1997 Landmark Report on the Public Perception of Alternative Care. No longer would massage therapy be confined to the maternity ward or locker room!
Indeed, a significant portion of the consumer base now includes patients with no injury or rehabilitative need of massage therapy. These customers seek out massage as a way of reducing stress, improving circulation, and obtaining a general sense of well-being. Those who learn of massage's ability to help flush toxins and wastes from one's cells often feel a need to return regularly for a sort of "tune-up."
Supply and Demand
To meet this growing demand, the number the number of practicing massage therapists in the United States has grown to more than 160,000, according to the AMTA. It is worth noting that membership in this organization, which requires 500 hours of accredited education, has more than quadrupled since 1990. Chiropractors and other clinicians continue to expand their services by adding licensed massage therapists to their practices. Even the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association acknowledges that Americans spend approximately $4 - $6 billion annually on massages (November 11, 1998). That estimate was based on 114 million visits to massage therapists, or, put another way, more than 300,000 visits nationwide every single day.
This customer base will continue to expand. Every day, new customers are exposed to the benefits of massage in a variety of ways. Even if we disregard those patients being referred for massage therapy due to injury, we still see a vast, ongoing expansion of public awareness. For instance, many large US corporations offer massage as an employee benefit, often actually bringing a therapist into the workplace to deliver stress-reducing massages on-site. These sessions typically last 10-15 minutes and benefit all involved: the employee feels more relaxed and limber, while the company reduces absenteeism and in many cases also reduces insurance claims.
Meanwhile, hotels and independent day spas continue to spread the word. An emerging trend in the hotel industry seems to be a widening of spa activities. Vacationers exposed to such treatments as facials, manicures, saunas, and massage will seek out these activities back in their home area. Some hotels, and even some shopping malls, now offer a variety of mechanized massage treatments, available to anyone with just a few dollars. These appliances include dry hydrotherapy tables as well as chairs and tables with massaging rollers behind the fabric. Some of these chairs and beds are also available for home purchase.
This brings us to the final point in our overview of the popularization of massage. Mechanized massage devices open the market to those who can't afford repeated visits at $45 and above but maybe can afford an occasional $10 treatment. Chiropractors and other clinicians offering massage are opening themselves to the notion that certain mechanized massage treatments can often be reimbursed by insurance. This effectively allows the chiropractor to be in two places at once: earning reimbursement for the mechanized massage which likely needs little or none of his attention, while actually working on another patient in another room.
As for licensed massage technicians with their own operations, certain kinds of mechanized massage will actually enhance their practice by increasing the number of patients they can see in a day and by widening the scope of services they offer. For instance, an LMT might direct clients to a mechanized massage apparatus for the first part of their treatment, to relax the patient and work out any major kinks. Then the LMT can finish off the appointment personally, adding hands-on therapy as needed. Such an arrangement would increase the number of appointments available in a day. Further, the LMT could offer a lower-rate appointment consisting only of mechanized therapy (or a combination of different mechanized therapies).
Clearly, massage therapy has gained widespread acceptance over the past few years, leaving behind the stigma attached to other so-called "alternative" practices. Acceptance comes on two levels: in the medical arena and in the arena of popular opinion. While the medical disciplines seem finally willing to judge massage on its merits, consumers are flocking to massage providers in record numbers. It is now appropriate to discard the "alternative" label and welcome massage therapy to the mainstream.
About the Author
Michael Whalen is a consultant leading the marketing of an automated, user-driven massage table. He can be contacted through his website at www.dancyconsulting.com or by phone at (954) 720-3487 .
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