Man doing foot massage therapy treatment on a patient in a hospital

Massage has always been a part of medicine. Chinese texts, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Hippocrates’ writings all leave evidence of how the “art of rubbing” was part of every eon’s respective health care toolkit.

In our more recent history up until the 1970s, massage was part of nursing care and the evening shift included giving massage to patients prior to sleep.

In the late 1980s massage therapists started to fill in where nursing left off. A Plane Tree unit of a San Francisco hospital took the next step by creating an internship program to prepare massage therapists to work within the medical center setting and with medically complex patients.

Since then, the field of hospital-based massage therapy has seen substantial growth. There are several education programs specific to hospital-based massage; there are published competencies to help guide administrators, educators and practitioners in knowing the needed skillsets; and there are textbooks, such as those written by Gayle MacDonald and me, Tracy Walton, and Ruth Werner, for working with medically complex patients, both out-patient and in medical centers.

Years of research include studies of the efficacy of massage for conditions such as pain, anxiety, fatigue, neuropathy and exposure to benzodiazepines, to name just a few.

I have been living, breathing, teaching and recently writing all things hospital-based massage therapy since I was an intern in a year-long hospital training program in 2005 (the offspring of that original Plane Tree internship). As a field within a field, hospital-based massage therapy offers unique ways for us to serve by directly helping patients at the bedside and by expanding what it means to be a health care provider.

A multiple myeloma patient I recently worked with comes to mind. She, like others, is hospitalized for weeks at a time while receiving her stem cell transplant. I saw her weekly and offered foot reflexology or sometimes craniosacral therapy.

After our last session in early March, she stated, “You offer such an amazing service. It really makes my stay here more tolerable.” It’s the kind of response that reminds me I am in exactly the right place.

And then Came the Coronavirus

And then came COVID-19. Quite literally, everything in the massage world has come to a hard stop. In this very moment, we are in an unprecedented limbo, both personally as practitioners and globally as we are part of a single economic ecosystem.

While this situation is humbling to the core, I feel this is actually a once-in-a-lifetime collective opportunity. We could close up shop and turn to another career or we can hold tight and reinvent a better future. What do we want to keep from the before time and what do we want to create fresh?

Allow me to dream a bit, specific to hospital work: We keep our touch guidelines and adjustment recommendations for gentle activation of the patient’s parasympathetic nervous system. We keep the full set of practices that help patients better tolerate difficult experiences.

What if we could add to the future: massage therapy as the first intervention for pain, instead of addictive, expensive medications? Imagine a patient calls their nurse for help with pain and instead of administering morphine, the nurse replies, “Let me call the massage therapist for you. She’ll be there in just a bit.”

Slow and Steady

Until the COVID-19 vaccine is developed, tested and widely distributed, we need to brace for a slow but hopefully steady reintroduction into medical centers and other patient care facilities.

New protocols can be developed together by allied practices such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture and massage therapy.

Will it mean masking, gowning and gloving for every patient? Will it mean avoiding all contact with the T-zone — eyes, nose and mouth — ?  Will it mean being screened and tested on a regular basis?

Our current suspension is a huge setback and not at all where my dreams had us in 2020. I have heard some colleagues are planning for the end of massage therapy forever, while some states are suddenly back open. If history is any indicator, skillful touch will continue to be an integral part of the healing process.

No virus can change that.

And, if we do this right, together, we might just make a leap forward in our own time.

About the Author:

Carolyn Tague, CMT, is program manager of the currently paused advanced training in hospital-based massage therapy program at UCSF| Osher Center. She is the founder of Tague Consulting, which offers continuing education courses and consulting. She co-authored, with Gayle MacDonald, “Hands in Health Care: Massage Therapy for Adult Hospital Patients.”