A therapist pushes a stone into the sole of a client's foot during a massage session.

Using heated stones for bodywork and healing is an ancient practice going back more than 2,000 years.

Heated stones have been used to help improve internal organ functioning, and to ease the pains of menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. They are also used in energy work, such as reiki, and to complement pedicures and manicures.

These days, they have become increasingly popular to enhance the benefits of massage.

Heat Plus Touch

If you’re unfamiliar with hot stone therapy, think of it this way: When you’re at home and your muscles are tight, maybe from an intense workout in the gym or shoveling your driveway, or you’ve spent a long day in the car, you might grab a rice pack and heat it in the microwave and apply that warmth to your aching spots.

Hot stone therapy works similarly to that heated rice pack, but with the added benefit of massage.

It is an easy technique to learn and a great service to offer your massage clients, said Amber Owen, a licensed massage therapist who helps train massage therapists on using hot stone therapy at Massage Heights in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Massage Heights a family-owned therapeutic massage and facial services franchise company based in San Antonio, Texas.

Using hot stones in conjunction with different massage techniques and modalities increases circulation and helps create deeper muscle relaxation so you get more deep tissue results without a lot of heavy pressure, she said. “The client can stay more relaxed while you’re working on tight muscles.”

Because it takes less effort and pressure to work those tight muscles, using hot stones is a benefit for massage therapists, too, she noted, in that therapists don’t get worn down over time from doing deep tissue massage work.

A Simple Technique

Using hot stones in your massage work is simple. Generally, hot stones are used for full body massage, but you can customize the positioning and usage of the stones to meet the needs of your clients, said Brooke Riley, a licensed massage therapist who is an operations specialist for Massage Heights, which has more than 140 locations in the U.S. and Canada. “You can customize to specific areas that really need attention,” she said.

The stones used in hot stone therapy are smooth so that they are easy to work with and glide over the skin in conjunction with the use of body lotions. Frequently, they are made from basalt, a type of volcanic rock known for holding heat, but some massage therapy practitioners use man-made stones with copper centers.

The stones vary in size and weight, but cradle into the palm of the massage therapist’s hand so that when using the stone on your client’s body, it works like an extension of your hand, Owen said. “You don’t have to have a death grip on it.”

Stones are often heated in a crock pot-like device filled with water. The water heats up and warms the stones to between 125 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Safety First

Massage therapists take the heated stones in their hands (some use tongs to remove the stones from the water first) and let the stones warm their hands, then they place their warmed hands on their client’s body, said Riley. “(We want to) acclimate the client to the heat of the stone,” she said, “(so) it’s not a shock.” (Related: “MTs Ask: What is the Relationship Between Heat ad Blood Flow?”)

A good massage routine when working with hot stones is to use your warmed hands to do a little light massage before placing hot stones on your client, Owen said. Then you can put the stones on your client – most often stones are placed in a specific pattern, frequently along the spine, for example – and let the heat of the stones do its work on softening and relaxing your client’s body.

“The stones do a little bit of work for you,” she said. After the stones have worked their magic, do the massage as you would normally, using the stones and your hands.

In addition to using the stones to glide over your client’s body, you can use them to loosen knots in the muscles. If you’ve been gliding the stones over your client’s body and want to work a knot, said Owen, pause with the stone over the area to let the heat of the stone ease the tight spot, then apply a bit of pressure behind the stone, using the stone to loosen the knot.

Massage therapists new to using hot stones will need to learn how to safely handle them so they don’t burn themselves or their clients, how to place them on the body, and how to pair their usage with how the therapists conduct massage, said Owen.

It’s also important for therapists to learn self-care and proper body mechanics when using the stones, such as how to hold the stones so your hands don’t cramp up.

Receive Hot Stone

Owen and Riley recommend that massage therapists try out a hot stone massage for themselves before starting to use the technique with clients to give them a good understanding of how it feels and to start to conceptualize how they can use the technique for themselves when working with clients.

Before offering hot stone therapy to your massage clients, think about what your specific client needs and consider how or if hot stone therapy would be helpful – or just enjoyable – for that client.

And be aware that hot stone therapy isn’t recommended for every client, such as those who are pregnant or who have high blood pressure, diabetes or skin irritations, Owen cautioned.

When you do recommend hot stone therapy to a client, a verbal description of how hot stones work and feel is often not enough for clients to understand what the experience will be like or how it will make them feel, she said.

“Bring out one stone so they can feel what it’s like,” Owen added. Once they have that little bit of exposure, the next time they come in, they will be more likely to try it out.

About the author:

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine.