Photo of a woman getting a chair massage during a appointment with a female massage therapist.

Massage therapists hear the term “body mechanics” tossed around a lot in regard to self-care — but what does it mean exactly, and why is it so important?

We spoke with licensed massage therapist Brooke Riley, an operations specialist for Massage Heights, a family-owned therapeutic massage and facial services franchise company based in San Antonio, Texas, to get some tips on body mechanics, a rundown on what body mechanics are, and why they’re so important for massage therapists to practice.

Body Mechanics Defined

Look up the term “body mechanics” in a medical dictionary and you’ll see something like this from the Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing: “The application of physical principles to achieve maximum efficiency and to limit risk of physical stress or injury to the practitioner of physical therapy, massage therapy, or chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation.”

In a nutshell, says Riley, that means massage therapists are using positioning techniques in order to provide their clients with a good massage while not injuring themselves doing the work of massage. “It helps us not get injured and to ward off fatigue, for that day or even for years to come,” she said.

It’s easy to get injured or to wear yourself out doing massage work, she said, because, like athletes, massage therapists use their whole bodies to do massage and often do the same motions over and over and over again, day in and day out.

It’s not uncommon for massage therapists to burnout within five years, she noted. “Our bodies get tired after a while,” she said. “Our bodies give out.”

The Impact of Poor Body Mechanics

Massage students should receive training in proper body mechanics in massage therapy school, but it’s easy to forget yourself when you’re focusing on the client in front of you, Riley said.

“Therapists are such caring people. We just want our guests to feel better,” she said. “We always forget about ourselves. Always.”

But you can’t take good care of your clients if you aren’t taking good care of yourself, she added.

Poor body mechanics can result in fatigue and injury, and, eventually, can shorten your career, Riley said.

Some of the most common injuries she sees from poor body mechanics are:

• Shoulder injuries – Some therapists, she said, will do a scooping motion with their arms where they’re pulling their arm back toward them. This, Riley said, causes a lot of strain on the joints and muscles of the shoulder, leading to frequent injury of the shoulder. Because massage therapists rely on their arms and shoulders to do the work of massage, “If we injure our shoulders,” she said, “we’re pretty much out of a career.”

• Lower back pain – A lot of therapists have lower back pain because they lean over their clients rather than positioning themselves properly, she said. If they would use the bow or horse stance instead of leaning, they would avoid using their back muscles to hold themselves up.

• Wrist and hand injuries – Therapists tend to use their thumbs a lot, especially when doing trigger point therapy or deep tissue work, and that can lead to a lot of thumb pain, something Riley has experienced firsthand.

“When I became a massage therapist,” she said, “one of my joints in my thumb was almost sliding. It had come apart.”

Riley had to have her thumb wrapped and couldn’t use it for a couple of weeks while it healed. Because she couldn’t use her thumb, she was forced to use her elbows and forearms instead, which turned out to be a boon, and something she continues to do today.

Given her experience, when she trains massage therapists, she encourages them to give their thumbs a break and rely on elbows and forearms more.

Common Body Mechanics Failures

In addition to the poor body mechanics examples Riley mentions above, she often sees therapists making these poor body positioning choices: Poor hand positioning: Many times, massage therapists will forget to use their hands properly when massaging clients, she said.

“Therapists tend to lift their fingertips up and massage pushing with the palm,” she said. “Over time, that really does a number on your hands and wrists.”

• Hyperextension: Leaning and hyperextension go hand in hand and it’s pretty sure that if a massage therapist is leaning, he is also hyperextending. Hyperextension can not only lead to lower back pain, but also headaches and shoulder tension and injuries.

• Forgetting to relax and breathe: Massage therapists will often get to concentrating so hard on what they’re doing, they may hold their breath and tense up, with their shoulders tucking up toward their ears and their hands tight and rigid instead of keeping their shoulders down and hands relaxed, Riley said.

• Bending: Instead of moving their entire bodies with the motion of the massage, massage therapists often do a lot of bending at the waist. “Eventually,” she said, “that will kill their lower backs and their glutes and their hip flexors.”

While it is easy to slip into poor body mechanics practices, there are simple things you can do to make sure you don’t, Riley said, thereby helping you to avoid injury and fatigue and provide you with enough energy and stamina to allow you to give your clients a great massage:

• Dance: Think of placing your feet properly while doing massage as a bit like dancing, she said. “You’re kind of moving back and forth,” moving with the flow of the massage. Those dance steps will help keep you in the proper stance, she said.

• Engage your core: If you’re engaging your core, your back is not doing all the work.

• Leverage your body weight: Use your body weight to advantage so that you aren’t exerting yourself by pushing against your clients and overworking your muscles.

• Stretch: Before and between massages, do some simple stretches of your hands, wrists and fingers. Riley likes to do little butterfly moves with her shoulders to loosen them up. Yoga or other movements that open up the body, especially those that stretch the pecs and hip flexors, are a great benefit to massage therapists, she said.

• Use tools: There are a number of self-care tools that are easy to use between sessions and are really effective. She favors using lacrosse balls to loosen her tight shoulders. Other options are foam rollers and stretching bands.

“We take care of people all day long every day of our career but sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves,” she said. But by using proper body mechanics, you’re getting a twofer: “Since you’re taking care of your body,” she said, “you’re not getting fatigued, so you can really give a lot of energy to your guest.”

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.