medical massage therapist and patient

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My role as a hospital massage therapist includes educating the medical community about the benefits and positive outcomes of hospital massage for patients.

By staying up-to-date with new medical discoveries and techniques, medical massage therapists can help promote understanding of how beneficial massage therapy and bodywork are to allopathic medicine.


Medical Massage Therapists

As a massage therapist, I find it very rewarding to work with patients, alleviating pain from conditions previously treated by a physician.

My goal is to evaluate and assess each patient’s condition to see what type of bodywork will be most beneficial in improving their quality of life and decreasing their pain. Patients may be unaware of what a medical massage therapist practicing in a hospital setting can do for them, as opposed to traditional massage in a spa setting.

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Informing doctors and their staff about all the possible conditions that are treatable with massage can be challenging. Some physicians believe massage is a feel-good practice or a luxury. Some other people, including patients, believe there is no correlation between medical treatments and massage.

Additionally, I have witnessed many health care professionals, including physicians, who are aware of medical massage, and choose to refer their patients to physical therapists, because insurance typically covers physical therapy, and they don’t want to burden patients with an out-of-pocket expense.

However, for some patients, massage is a necessity—and as massage therapy’s use in hospitals continues to grow, the benefits of massage are becoming better known to physicians and other hospital staff.


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Sanford’s Commitment

The Sanford Health hospital massage program began three years ago on the main floor of Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Located in the Center for Health and Well-being, we are open to patients, staff, visitors and the public.

For patients, having their massage therapist practice in a hospital setting builds trust that I am an expert and that there is safety in the location, with medical professionals available if needed. I provide professional knowledge and care, and working in the hospital provides the opportunity to work with physicians.

“I think the biggest benefit that I have seen with having a hospital-based therapist is that I know that the provider is utilizing good technique as well as medical massage to help with pain syndromes,” said Sara Ruter, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Sanford Health. “I also feel that it allows a degree of collaboration in patient care. It is nice to be able to give the patient the name of a therapist through the Sanford Health facility for massage therapy to help relieve musculoskeletal pain.”

It comes as a surprise to many people how many areas of the hospital benefit from having a medical massage therapist. I have treated patients in oncology, rehab, acute care (with doctor permission), the birthing center and pre-op, along with many other departments.


Be Prepared

Since we are located in the hospital, I have had the opportunity to provide medical massage and bodywork to patients and health care professionals alike. I once performed massage on a doctor experiencing lower back pain while he was working in the cardiac cath lab.

The pain had grown so severe throughout the day that he could barely walk. I was approached to see if there was any way I could help him and I quickly fit him in so he could finish his workday.

Due to a tight schedule, I had only 15 minutes to work him in. After those 15 minutes of loosening his muscles, his pain level decreased and he was able to walk standing up straight again.

Although emergency appointments don’t happen all the time, the case with the doctor is just one example of how crucial a hospital massage program is and the benefits it can provide. Just a brief session enabled him to finish his workday without pain.

I am always prepared for the unexpected. I get to the hospital early to make sure my room is clean, warm and welcoming; and that equipment is working properly and supplies are accessible. I also respond to emails and thoroughly review client files. (Patients are encouraged to disclose medical issues, if not in their file, with me before I begin their care.)


male hospital patient

Alleviate Pain

By continuing my education in various fields of massage therapy, I have been able to offer my services to many disciplines in the hospital setting. This allows me to assist clients with medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, neuropathy, rehabilitation and cancer.

High blood pressure affects many adults who have not found a medication or treatment to keep it under control. With no lifestyle changes other than regular massage every two weeks and home blood pressure monitoring, I have had multiple patients see a significant drop in their blood pressure.

I also frequently treat patients suffering from neuropathy, or damage to or disease affecting nerves. I consulted with one of our physicians at the hospital with a mutual patient who was having a lot of pain.

Medicine can help a neuropathy patient’s pain, facilitating the return of feeling, but medication proves unsuccessful at times. After significant research and working with this physician, I discovered how massage could benefit patients suffering from similar pain.

With regular-basis massage or home-care massage, I have seen great results. Although pain may increase during massage, the pain diminishes later.


Treat Trauma

Having a great deal of experience and education with medical massage has allowed me to treat numerous people who have suffered different medical traumas. I recently treated a woman, Mary, who was in a severe car accident. Mary was injured, but not as severely as her husband, who was flown to our medical center in Sioux Falls.

Mary remained in severe to moderate pain and was extremely stressed due to the accident and her husband’s hospitalization. I provided Mary with her first massage to help relieve the pain in her arms, neck and back as well as her stress and anxiety.

“Clearly, there are physical benefits for massages, but there are certainly emotional benefits as well,” said Patrick Kelly, M.D., a board-certified vascular surgeon and founder of Sanford Vascular Innovations.

“We all know the healing process, especially for more seriously ill patients, goes beyond the physical,” he continued. “I think we also need to remember these patients’ families and the benefits they may gain from massage, as well.”


Successful Recovery

In 2015 I treated Wendy, a stroke patient. Wendy’s recovery remained at a standstill two weeks after her stroke. With her permission and that of her doctor, I began massaging her. I worked with the physical and occupational therapists during the inpatient portion of her recovery.

Wendy’s muscles redeveloped strength more quickly and effectively through physical and occupational therapy and frequent massage therapy for her muscles, nerves and pain.

“The role Koni and massage therapy played in Wendy’s recovery is immeasurable,” said Wendy’s husband, Vern. “Without proper medical training, knowledge and experience of medical massage therapy, Wendy’s recovery would have been much slower and less successful.”

I continue to provide massage therapy to Wendy and other stroke patients. Although the effects of a stroke don’t always disappear, continued massage therapy improves the healing process.


Continuing Education

As massage therapists, we are taught the basics of anatomy and physiology of the human body and how systems work together. Kinesiology and pathology are also important areas of expertise, as patients will come in with specific diseases or conditions that will require extensive knowledge of the human body.

Hospital massage is different from massage in other settings, and most often it requires mentoring and hands-on experience from a current practicing therapist. Working in a hospital setting also exposes the therapist to the patient’s emotional circumstances that he is undergoing, like depression, acute or chronic illness, even dying.

Whether you are currently in a hospital setting, or working in a spa or another practice setting, continuing your education is extremely important. Working in a hospital requires you, just like any other health care professional, to keep updated with the latest treatment modalities and innovations in medicine to determine how massage therapy can affect the patient’s condition for a positive outcome.

It is important to take refresher courses to improve on techniques, shadow other massage therapists, take advantage of internship and externship opportunities, and engage in self-study for personal and professional growth and development.

I earned advanced certifications, knowing they would benefit not only myself, but my clients. I saw a need to become certified in lymphedema and sports massage. The more knowledge and understanding of the human body and how its systems work together you have, the better equipped you will be to treat your clients.


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A Powerful Complement

Medicine and massage complement each other by helping clients heal as a whole. I find it very rewarding to hear patients say their pain has decreased or disappeared or that tingling or numbness has improved. They are able to perform daily activities or play sports again without noticing any limitations.

Massage is seen as a powerful aspect of patient healing by Sanford medical staff.

“Offering massage therapy services as a complement to the medical care that a patient receives was a requirement and a necessity for the patients we serve in the Sanford Center for Health and Well-being,” said the center’s director, Lynn Thomas, R.N., B.S.N.

“This modality has proven to decrease stress, anxiety and pain, increase mobility, decrease blood pressure and can provide comfort to assist in the healing process for patients undergoing medical care,” she added. “The on-site service also offers a benefit to the health care of employees that will improve their overall well-being in the workplace.”


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Koni SimsAbout the Author

Koni Sims, C.L.M.T., C.S.M.T., C.L.T., graduated from South Dakota School of Massage Therapy and received her Certified Sport Training certification from the Institute of Somatic Therapy. She then received her lymphedema technician certification through Blue Heron Academy of Healing Arts & Sciences. Sims developed the current hospital massage program at Sanford USD Medical Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.



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