by Jim Craft

I have built my career based on listening to the needs of massage therapists. I have listened, learned and incorporated these ideas into my company’s products.

Two principles I have learned over 23 years that might be useful to both massage therapists just starting their career and those who have been around a bit are:

1. A therapist can perform her or his best work on a client when the client’s body is at rest.

2. A client’s body is not effectively at rest on a flat massage table.

Ergonomics, according to the International Ergonomics Association, is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body and its movements. I have found that definition does not go far enough in massage. Ergonomic design for massage, to be most effective, must result in equipment that positions the body properly to assist the massage therapist to focus on addressing the individual needs of each client with minimum discomfort to the client and therapist.

A mechanical design engineer by education and training, I first became actively acquainted with massage back in 1983, as a client. I was at a local water park in Florida enjoying the water slide ride when the tube I was hanging onto threw me off and I landed in two-and-a-half feet of water head first against a concrete basin. For three years, I could not bend my head to do design drawings.

Desperate, I underwent sessions with various massage therapists. Inquisitive by nature, I asked how the therapist seemed to intuitively zero in on the areas of my body that needed treatment. One very experienced therapist pointed out that when the body was at rest, the misaligned areas became apparent to touch and even sight. The problem, he said, is getting the body to be at rest. Since he was leaning over in an awkward position to work on me, I suggested that a massage table aligned to the body rather than a rectangular table might work better.

Since I had time on my hands, I designed and built various tables that were narrower and had circular edges. I found that if the table was too narrow, the client could not relax for fear of falling off the table.

Then to help the therapist work on my neck, I designed and built a cutaway at the top of the table—2 inches back and 18 inches wide—to permit him to get his hands more easily around my neck and back.

To stretch my psoas major muscle, he had to drop my leg off the table, put his right hand on my shoulder to keep me balanced while working with his free hand on the psoas. I then experimented with designing an active isolated stretching system featuring a middle split in the table, which allows the therapist to raise and lower the center of the table with the help of an electric motor. The adjustment of the table could be handled by a foot pedal. I built a few before I was satisfied with the functionality of the design. The design I settled on, and adjustments over the years that improved upon the original design, permits adjustable heights and angles to the table. This enables therapists to use less of their own muscle and strength in the massage and rely more on the mechanical adjustments of the table, as well as their own body weight, to achieve appropriate pressure on the client.

Now I was really getting excited, because massage therapists said the massage tables I developed permitted them to get closer to clients and also put clients at rest more quickly to expose the misalignment of the body while moving the body up and down. The tables also allowed less wear and tear on the massage therapists.

Through experience, therapists found the tables worked best when the client’s belly button centered on the split in the table. But I did some research and found that the distance between a client’s belly button and chin was 13 inches on average for a shorter person and 15 to 16 inches for a taller person. I then designed and built a sliding head rest to permit the therapist to have a table ergonomically fitting each client.

In all of these designs, the critical elements are essentially twofold: tables that can easily and quickly adjust to the shape and size of each client, as well as to the size and strength of each therapist and the technique he or she chooses to employ, whether it is Swedish, deep tissue, neuromuscular, sports, myofascial release, acupressure, craniosacral or another.

Next, we worked on designs for the arms. When arms are lying flat beside the body, there is tension across the shoulders. By creating armrests, the arms could be brought forward away from the body, permitting the entire upper body to be at rest.

After three years of treatment, I not only was able to begin to create a number of massage tables that suited the special needs of the therapists and clients, but by having therapists work on me on my tables, I could again regain nearly 95 percent of the mobility of my head, neck and shoulders I had before the accident. Many massage tables later and many more massages have kept me healthy and wiser in how tables can assist a therapist in quickly putting a client at rest.

I owe a great deal of my physical and mental health to the massage community. I hope that over the years I have contributed to that community as well.

Jim Craft is the founder and president of Comfort Craft Inc., based in Longwood, Florida (www.comfortcraft.com).

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