massage for recovery from addiction

When you say good-bye to clients at the end of a typical massage session, you probably invite them to re-book, or at least encourage them to return for another session so you can help maintain their pain or stress relief.

When Shannon Scearce, C.M.T., says good-bye to clients, she sincerely hopes she will never see them again.

That’s because Scearce works full-time at Serenity Acres Treatment Center, an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Crownsville, Maryland. Her massage clients, who come to her from a variety of backgrounds, share a common goal: recovery from addiction and a return to normal, productive lives.

Addiction is a powerful problem; more than 20 million Americans age 12 and older had a substance use disorder in 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

As Scearce spoke with MASSAGE Magazine about her experience working in a specialty facility with this clientele, one word came up over and over again: rewarding.

“The greatest feeling is watching them on the journey that they take,” Scearce said. “It’s just extremely rewarding.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 3.5 million U.S. adults—1.4 percent of people 18 or older—received treatment for substance abuse; 2.3 million of those were treated at specialty facilities.

For massage therapists interested in providing massage for recovery from addiction, the substance abuse treatment environment offers unique benefits and challenges.


man receiving massage

Human Connection

Serenity Acres is among a growing number of rehabilitation facilities that have embraced a complementary, holistic model of client care. In addition to medically supervised detox, mental health counseling and group therapy, Serenity Acres offers a full menu of wellness services.

Residents may receive massage, and also participate in yoga, meditation and various recreational therapies such as ropes courses, sports and gardening.

Sheree Surdam, a massage therapist and wellness program manager at Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Connecticut, believes a holistic approach is critical to dealing with addiction issues. Her facility offers many complementary therapies, including Thai yoga massage, qi gong, acupuncture and other activities designed to address the whole person—mind, body and spirit.

Massage for recovery, she said, can be an important part of a program, especially for people just starting rehabilitation, who may feel extremely disconnected from their bodies and emotions.

“These are people that have gotten so far away from even knowing what their feelings feel like,” Surdam said. “They can feel sick, or they can feel angry; but those deeper feelings are under layers … if you peel those layers back, underneath is where you find fear … pain … suffering.”

Massage, she said, “gives that person the opportunity to be in a safe place, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to have that transference of caring from another person without any agenda.

“It really does open pathways spiritually and emotionally for people to start feeling like they’re coming home to themselves,” Surdam added.


Massage for Recovery

One obvious benefit to both clients and therapists is that regularly scheduled massage sessions are part of clients’ care plan. Seeing clients more often than you typically would in a massage clinic or spa setting can translate into greater opportunities to see your work have a positive effect.

In a spa, “a lot of times you’re seeing people once in a blue moon,” Scearce said. “Or once and then never see them again.” At Serenity Acres, “they are booked weekly, which is a huge benefit.”

While addiction treatment centers are medical facilities, their massage session rooms are often quite spa-like in nature. Scearce, who mainly offers Swedish and deep tissue massage, has a work area featuring dimmed lighting, quiet music and an aromatherapy diffuser.

“Some [clients] choose to have the full relaxation experience, smell the aromatherapy and listen to the music; some choose to talk,” she said. “They all get something out of it.”


choosing life instead of drugs

Healthy Alternatives 

Of the client base Serenity Acres serves, a significant portion struggle with addiction to opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone or fentanyl. This dependency often begins when a physician prescribes pain medication for a legitimate pain issue.

“They become addicted to pain medicine that’s supposed to help them,” Scearce said. Withdrawal and abstinence from the medicine can mean a return to their original source of pain. In this case, receiving massage may introduce the client to a natural alternative to drugs for easing pain.

After getting regular massage during their stay, many clients ask Scearce for referrals to outside massage therapists so they can continue using natural means to deal with chronic pain.



Therapists interested in working in an addiction recovery facility need good communication skills and the ability to work as part of a team with other health care providers.

“This is very much a team environment,” said Surdam. “The wellness department works very closely with the clinical department. All of us meet every morning and discuss briefly who’s doing what, who needs what, what’s happening so we can make sure the clients get what they need.”

While session notes are important no matter where you practice massage, those created in a medical setting have meaning not only to the massage therapist, but to the rest of the care team, which may include physicians, mental health counselors, nurses and other staff members responsible for residents’ welfare.

“[My notes are] there for the counselors to look back on if they need to,” Scearce said. “It is mandatory for a massage therapist to create a SOAP note on every single client.”


Compassionate Care

To succeed in an environment like Serenity Acres or Mountainside, both Surdam and Scearce agree, the most important quality a massage therapist must have is compassion. Scearce added that personal experience with addiction issues, whether your own or a loved one’s, may help you relate to your clients’ struggles, but overall compassion is more critical.

While many massage clients open up to their therapists in other settings, the issues that arise during massage in an addiction treatment center can be especially emotionally heavy. As a massage therapist, Scearce stresses the importance of being a trusted listener who doesn’t judge.

“If they need to talk, they’re just talking,” she said. “I’m just a friendly ear for them to get things off their chest. Some choose to just relax and we don’t really say anything … the massage does the work.

“This is a hard thing they’re dealing with, probably the toughest thing they’ll ever deal with their entire lives,” she continued. “You have to be compassionate.”


open door

New Beginnings

While successful addiction treatment involves teamwork from a variety of health care providers, Surdam believes that a holistic approach, incorporating high-quality medical care with massage and other complementary therapies, is the key to preventing people in recovery from relapsing into their destructive patterns.

“People want to connect. They want to be heard. They want to feel that they belong to something … they want to feel loved,” she said. “This is something that’s really lacking in our culture.”


About the Author

Allison Payne is MASSAGE Magazine’s online & associate editor. She has written many articles for MASSAGE, including “Warm Up Your Winter: Heat Therapy for You and Your Clients (in print, November 2016) and “Sitting or Standing, Office Workers Need Massage” (, March 23).