Woman hangs a card with information about the store closing due to coronavirus on a shop window

This is such a hard time for massage therapists, for two reasons.

The first is financial, of course. The hidden cost is significant as well: Massage therapists are touch-motivated people.

Ethical massage therapists shut down their practices in early March, when it became clear that our up-close-and-personal contact with clients could in no way be compliant with responsible physical distancing.

Later in the month many states mandated that non-essential businesses must close. People whose incomes depend on their massage practice may have no backup plan and no idea about when things might return to some kind of normal.

Again, the hidden cost is significant as well: Massage therapists are touch-motivated people.  That quiet, private, meditative, sacred time we spend in human contact feeds us in ways that other people may not understand. In the session room we are in time-out-of-time, totally present to the needs of our client, doing our part to make the world a better place.

It is a blessed calling. And now we can’t do it.

The Ethical Choice

We are suffering for lack of contact, and for lack of being able to bring our skills to improve a dire situation.

But there is no other ethical choice.

As this article is posted online, in early May 2020, the US has confirmed, according to the CDC, 1,122,486 cases of COVID-19 and 65,735 deaths. This is the crest of the tsunami.

Experts tell us it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

My job as a pathology educator is to present information so that people can make informed choices for themselves and for the best results for their clients. I present choices as weighing risks and benefits.

What are the risks of careless, uninformed massage in this situation? What are the possible benefits with skillful, carefully applied massage therapy? Can you design a session that minimizes the risks and maximizes potential benefits?

I almost never have to say, “You can’t do massage,” because in most situations around pathology there is some kind of educated touch that can be helpful — unless the client or the therapist has something terribly contagious.

This is the unless moment.

Massage Isn’t Medically Necessary

I have seen a lot of misinformation being shared by both massage therapists and government officials making decisions about massage therapy. In my state, most massage practices have been mandated to close down, but an exemption was made for medically necessary massage.

Bingo. People identifying themselves as medical massage therapists defend their continuing to practice through this loophole.

In another state the governor announced to the Better Business Bureau that while massage clinics must be closed, home visits would be perfectly fine. Boom, mobile massage therapists have a ticket to continue practice.

I’ve seen people say, “The shutdown is only until [fill in the date]; I will open the next day, because my work is essential to the wellbeing of my clients.” But lifting the shutdown will not make massage therapy safe.

Here’s some important information: massage therapy is never medically necessary.

No one has died because they were denied their massage therapy session. Have they been in pain? Yes. Would they have felt better with massage? Probably. But in this situation the risks outweigh the benefits. Every. Time.

And all of our prevaricating and what-iffing and but-just-this-once attitudes are putting people at risk: our clients, ourselves and every person in every person’s circle.

People started asking me for advice about COVID-19 since the beginning of February. Since then I have published various statements — the first advocating updated hygienic practices, and the second saying, no, ignore that, shut it down.

I have worked to help teachers transfer to online education. I have been in a live Q&A session about updates. I aim to be a reliable source of information so that people can make informed decisions about their work, and at this point there’s only one right decision.

We Will Open Up Again

The day will come when we can open up again. The day will come—depending on variables that we can’t even foresee yet — when we can do massage again.

Let’s be ready for it, as responsible, critically thinking, highly valued members of our community.

I can’t wait. Please save a place on your table for me, because I really need a massage.

Editor’s note: this is an opinion piece.

About the Author:

Ruth Werner, BCTMB, is a former massage therapist, a writer and an NCBTMB-approved continuing education provider. She wrote “A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology,” (available at booksofdiscovery.com), which is used in massage schools worldwide.