Massage has emerged as an essential part of integrative medicine centers throughout the U.S. The research supporting massage as a complementary treatment for pain relief, cancer, stress, arthritis, hospice care and many other health conditions has grown throughout the decades, catching the attention of doctors and medical researchers.
Integrative medicine is a holistic approach to health that considers the mental, emotional, physical, and sometimes spiritual aspects of a patient and the care provided to them. It is an approach that aligns the research and science of allopathic medicine with such healing modalities as massage, acupuncture, yoga, herbs, chiropractic and meditation. Many people consider integrative medicine an important contributor to the future of health care.
Employment as a medical massage therapist is a viable career path for many of today’s massage therapists, especially at hospitals and clinics with an integrative health care focus—although reliable statistics on the number of such therapists in the U.S. are not available.
According to a statement by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “While often preliminary or conflicting, there is scientific evidence that massage may help with back pain and may improve quality of life for people with depression, cancer and HIV/AIDS … [m]assage therapy appears to have few risks if it’s used appropriately and provided by a trained massage professional.”
One 2017 study of National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers found that 84.4 percent of such centers make massage therapy available to patients.
MASSAGE Magazine spoke with three massage therapists who are working in integrative medicine departments. David Lang, Tracy Segall and Sat-Siri Sumler have taken their massage therapy skills to the front lines of health care to work with, respectively: terminally ill children, injured patients and people battling cancer. Here are the therapists’ stories.
David Lang, LMT, RMTI, COMT
Center of Life at the University of New Mexico’s Integrative Medicine Department
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Within the walls of the University of New Mexico’s Integrative Medicine Department, massage therapist David Lang is about to hold the hand of a child taking her last breath. She is a 6-year-old Native American girl with brain cancer, and on her last day of life he follows her family from the hospital to their home.
The girl’s two grandmothers are present as well as other family members. His 27 years as a massage therapist helps him notice cues like the one the child is giving him that tells him she wants to go outside. He picks up her fragile body and walks with her in the yard of the family home.
“It seemed like this beautiful procession of the whole family just walking with me through the backyard and then coming back inside … She wasn’t awake awake but you could tell she was enjoying the experience of being outside,” Lang recalls of the memorable day.
On another night, he was called into the emergency room to work on a 14-year-old patient who recently had scoliosis surgery. The child was suffering with major abdominal discomfort from not having a bowel movement in over two weeks. Lang gave the child visceral massage and foot reflexology. Fifteen minutes following his treatment the child had an “explosive” bowel movement that both relieved the discomfort and allowed hospital staff to discharge the child within four hours.
“That’s just what touch does. We get those results,” Lang said.
Lang is the director of advanced manual therapies in the Integrative Medicine Department at the University of New Mexico. He was brought on the team 10 years ago to work in both outpatient and inpatient care.
His medical massage career started almost three decades ago working with a chiropractor and then building a successful accident-and-injury outpatient clinic. (Lang co-wrote “Medical Massage: The Role of Massage Therapy in Compassionate Palliative Care for Oncology Patients” for the October 2019 print issue of MASSAGE Magazine.)
When he was offered a position on the university’s integrative medicine team by the founding director, he said, he couldn’t pass it up. His interest in the medical aspect of massage and the impact the team could have in the massage industry appealed to him.
His new job included working on people who were recovering from surgery, hospice patients and emergency care. His job is far from the average massage therapist’s career, yet represents what it possible for those interested in a medical massage career.
“I worked with a kid with a shunt, I’ve worked with burn patients here, I’ve worked on patients with gunshot wounds, suicide patients, I’ve worked on prisoners,” he said. “Everything that you can imagine in the human array of medical conditions, I’ve had my hands on.”
In addition to his work at the hospital, he has worked with Sandra Whistler, MD, and Margaret Armstrong, MD, to publish the “Effects of Myotherapy on Children with Cerebral Palsy: Six Case Reports” in EXPLORE: The Journal of Science & Healing. He also trains first-year medical students to give reflexology care to mothers before and after childbirth.
His work can be heavy on the heart, but he said he was made for it.
“Therapists need to want to do this kind of work. It is not easy holding a baby when they’re dying … But that’s what we do,” Lang said. “I am there to bring comfort to the patient and the environment, whether it be a child or an adult.”
Tracy Segall, LMT
Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine
A typical day for Tracy Segall, lead massage therapist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine, starts at 8 a.m. She sees between 15 and 23 patients a day for 15- to 30- minute spot treatments. The health concerns she deals with are primarily acute conditions such as trip and fall, sports injuries, postural issues and pain.
“We have become the last resort,” Segall said. “Patients tell us, ‘I’ve tried this and that and you are my last resort because nothing else has worked.’”
Segall is part of an integrative team made up of acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, nutritionists, herbalists, yoga instructors and other holistic health care providers, established in 2004. She works alongside the center’s chiropractic doctors and is trained in using electrical stimulation and therapeutic ultrasound. These skills have expanded her role to chiropractic assistant.
Segall’s career in medical massage started in massage school and was followed with a position working with a chiropractor. “I was working a little more in depth with the muscles and not necessarily doing relaxation massage, but really trying to work on musculoskeletal issues,” Segall said.
She learned about common types of injuries and a theory of practice called chasing the pain, with which therapists find where pain stems from rather than where the patient feels it.
“That was eye-opening for me,” Segall said. “Usually for relaxation you work the tender spots, but with medical massage it’s different. You’re going into the next layer, the cause behind the pain.”
This experience gave her the knowledge and skill to now help the patients she sees at the Cleveland Clinic, many of whom come seeking alleviation for migraines as a last resort.
These patients, “have been to neurology, they’ve been to physicians, they’ve been to PT, they’ve tried all these different avenues and nothing is working. So then they end up on our table,” Segall said. After a few treatments, many patients report having reduced their medications, less frequent occurrences of their headaches and reduced pain intensity, she added.
“It is very fulfilling to have patients come in and say, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t come sooner’ [and] ‘This has been a godsend to me,’” Segall said.
Segall has been a licensed massage therapist for over a decade and has been with the Cleveland Clinic since 2012. She sees the future of integrative medicine moving toward a more harmonious system in which allopathic medicine and massage therapy work together to treat patients.
“Massage is successfully emerging already, but there is still room for improvement,” she said.
Sat-Siri Sumler, LMT
MD Anderson Integrative Medicine Center at the University of Texas
In 1991, massage for cancer patients was contraindicated. Many physicians and patients believed, erroneously, that massage could hasten the spread of cancer. That year, Sat-Siri Sumler, a massage therapist, received her own cancer diagnosis.
She was diagnosed with Clark level 4 melanoma and told she had less than two years to live. Being a massage therapist, she naturally wanted massage to help her through the difficult time ahead, but the misconception about cancer and massage stood before her. She began to ask questions—a lot of them—of her oncologist, who gave her the OK to receive massage.
In addition to beating cancer, Sumler also discovered her passion of bringing the benefits of massage to other cancer patients. A year following her diagnosis, Sumler, self-educated in oncology massage, began working with her private clients who were cancer patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“At that time, I was in private practice and so there was not an official, ‘Go ahead and work with patients’ [directive] from a physician. I educated myself and spoke with physicians, surgeons, oncologists and nurses,” Sumler said.
She developed a relationship with the wellness center director, and when a spot opened up for her to cover for their massage therapist she stepped in. That turned into a contract position and three years later a staff position. The wellness center became the Integrative Medicine Center. Fast forward 18 years and Sumler is still there, massaging cancer patients and making a difference.
“Often people will come in and they are in that stage where they are going to start radiation. They’ll say, ‘I decided on my way over here that I am going to tell my husband and doctor that I can’t do it anymore, I am done,’” Sumler said. Then after their massage, she added, “They’ll say, ‘Now [that] I am rejuvenated I feel like I can [continue receiving radiation].’”
Or they will say, “‘This is the first time I feel like myself since my diagnosis,’” Sumler said. “To me, that is so powerful.”
Sumler works in the center’s inpatient and outpatient care areas. She starts her day the night before, reviewing patients’ charts. Then the next morning her shift begins and she is hands-on with patients. In between sessions, she is diligently dictating notes about her patients for their medical records.
Her days are busy and long, she said, but also fulfilling and rewarding. She feels she is making a difference in the field of oncology massage alongside doctors on the integrative team at MD Anderson.
Her inquisitive nature led to a conversation with a physician about massage for a patient with bilateral pulmonary emboli and deep vein thrombosis. Later, it turned into a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal on the role of massage in cancer treatment. She also co-developed the center’s Annual Integrative Oncology Training Conference and facilitates trainings for massage therapists and other practitioners.
“For me it was very exciting to be able to collaborate with other very knowledgeable members of the medical community,” Sumler said. “It’s thrilling for me to be able to learn from them and also to be able to contribute to the knowledge bank for medical professionals and massage therapists. It is very rewarding.”
A Growing Specialty
It takes a unique disposition to help people who are facing challenging medical situations, every day. Such massage therapists are impacting the field of massage on a micro level with one massage on one person at a time, and on a macro level by influencing changes to protocols and paving the way for collaborations between Western medical professionals and holistic health care practitioners.
These are just three massage therapists who are changing health care in the U.S. Can we anticipate more of this integrative approach? It is a likely possibility, with medical massage becoming a growing field of specialization within health care.
Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and health care professional with more than 17 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, Reiki, sound healing and essential oils. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “What You Don’t Know about ADA Compliance Could Cost You—Big Time” and “Oakland Raiders NFL Massage Therapist Explains How He Succeeds in the Big Leagues.”