Disabled2To complement the MASSAGE Magazine article, “Gentle Touch: Massage for Clients with Disabilities,” by Mark Beck, in the June 2014 issue. Article summary: Benefits of massage to people with disabilities include stress relief, mitigation of pain, improved range of motion and improved self-image.

A day on a snowy ski slope in Utah 24 years ago changed my life forever. In the course of a few seconds, after catching a ski tip, hurling down the slope and landing head-first, I went from being a pre-eminent and successful massage therapist and educator who owned a massage school, performed 15-plus sessions a week, taught massage three days a week, and managed a business that employed five massage therapists, to a C5–6 quadriplegic who required around-the-clock care.

After seven days in intensive care and another seven days in the hospital, I was transferred to a rehabilitation center, where I spent four months learning how to live in a body paralyzed from the shoulders down. Physical therapy was intense. But with some coercion and persistence, I was able to include massage therapy as an integral part of my treatment plan.

Massage as a treatment plan 

Massage therapists were allowed to come into the rehabilitation center and either transfer me to a table or work with me in my hospital bed. Besides two weekly massages, I also received Trager sessions, craniosacral work and subtle energy work. These sessions helped relieve the physical stresses of the rehab setting, as well lift my spirits.

After leaving the rehabilitation center, I continued physical therapy three times a week for two years. The therapy was intense, and caused muscle strains in the few muscles I still had working. I also experienced compensation patterns from living life in a wheelchair. Massage therapy was a saving grace. Luckily, I had trained several excellent therapists and knew of others in the massage field who were more than willing to help when they could.

24 years of massage

Fast-forward 24 years: Massage therapy has become a regular part of my weekly schedule. Two to three times a week as a part of my morning regimen, I receive a one-and-a-half to two hours of bodywork. This includes light, circulatory and lymph massage on my lower extremities to help reduce the edema in my feet and ankles; range of motion and light stretching on the lower and upper extremities to maintain flexibility and reduce spasms; abdominal massage to stimulate bowel function; and massage on my neck and shoulders to compensate for distorted postural influences from wheelchair use.

I also employ skin brushing on my entire body to promote peripheral circulation, stimulate chi and sensory nerves and promote over-all skin health. Skin brushing also gives the therapist an opportunity to do a whole-body skin check to make sure there are no signs of pressure sores. I credit massage for keeping me as healthy and pain-free as I am.

In 24 years, I’ve had one minor pressure sore on my left ischium due to a faulty seating system. Luckily, because of regular skin checks during my massage and skin brushing, I was able to quickly respond to and treat the skin breakdown within a relatively short period of time. By adjusting the seating system, paying attention and keeping the skin healthy, that is the only skin lesion I’ve had.

The benefits of massage therapy

I spend many hours a day in front of a computer screen. During the time when I was not receiving consistent massage, I suffered neck-and-shoulder pain and occasional headaches. With regular bodywork sessions, I no longer have neck-and-shoulder pain from my time at work at a desk. Headaches are also a thing of the past.

I also credit massage for helping with my positive body image and mental attitude. It helps control the edema in my feet and ankles maintain flexibility and reduce spasms. It also helps me maintain a fairly high level of activity, which supports a positive attitude.  

A huge concern for quadriplegics is respiratory infections, colds and flu. I feel an indirect effect of consistent massage and a good attitude is I have experienced only one or two colds during the past 24 years living in a quadriplegic body.

With only a few considerations and adaptations, massage has been a great benefit to me, and I’m sure it would be to others with a great variety of conditions considered to be disabilities.

Mark Beck is the author of The Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage, currently in its fifth edition. He was a massage therapist for more than 15 years before he broke his neck in 1990. Beck served on the inaugural board of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education from 2010 to 2013. He may be contacted at mbeck@bajabb.com.