Do you care for your hands like they are the most vital asset of your massage business? By studying these five hand care rules to live by, you will ensure your massage career will always be your livelihood.
Hand-Care Tip #1: Practice Using Both Hands Equally
Massage school was fun and exciting while learning new strokes and how to apply them at the massage table. Until you stepped around to the other side of the table and tried to duplicate a stroke with your non-dominant hand! This can be awkward, to say the least. It’s not as easy as some experienced therapists make it look.
That hand scooping under the front of the shoulder to lift while the working hand glides under the scapula comes a lot more naturally with the dominant hand. You may have many massage strokes that come to mind that are easier to accomplish with one hand than the other.
Getting good at working with both hands takes practice and is important in saving your hands throughout your massage career.
Become aware of the awkward parts of your massage as you move through a session. Notice if your back twists a little to get the stroke correct or your shoulders and neck tighten while performing a stroke with your non-dominant hand.
Maybe you can pinpoint a bad habit that’s compensated for the lack of coordination on the side of the table that feels awkward. Finding these “weaknesses” in your body mechanics will prevent injury down the road.
First, notice the areas that don’t feel as strong or coordinated during your massage sessions. Next, bring awareness towards, “Have your body mechanics been compromised?” Finally, practice the weak spots with the correct use of your hands and body to make your massage stronger and avoid injury.
The client shouldn’t feel a difference between your strokes with the left or right hand.
[Watch a free webinar featuring Angela Lehman speaking on “Best Body Mechanics” for massage therapists.]
Hand-Care Tip #2: Use Hands Sparingly
Have you ever had a cut on your hand that made you need to modify how you worked? You may have been forced to find other ways to deliver massage strokes. This is one way to begin thinking along the lines of using hands sparingly.
As massage therapists, we assume we need to use our hands most of the time. Do we really need to use our hands as much as we do? If the same result could come from using, forearms let’s say, would you try it?
Let’s look at what we absolutely need our hands for:
• We need our hands (fingertips) to assess tissue. There isn’t a better tool than fingers for assessment.
• We need our hands for petrissage. The scooping motion works best with the hypothenar eminence and part of the palm.
• Friction, when needing to be specific, can really only be performed with fingers or thumbs. A broad tool like a knuckle or elbow isn’t specific enough for some tendons or adhesions.
Aside from the three listed above, almost every other desired outcome in massage can result from using other tools. Tools like forearms, fists, elbows, and knuckles.
For example, many massage therapists are in the habit of using effleurage with open hands to warm muscles for deeper work and transition strokes. This can also be accomplished with forearms.
What about compression or deep tissue strokes? While the heel of the hand may be your first choice, an elbow (with practice) could be a close second and do the job just as nicely.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use your hands at all, but begin to vary your tools and challenge yourself to use your hands less.
Hand-Care Tip #3: Rest Your Hands on Your Days Off
Have you ever tackled a weekend project that left your hands tired? It could be gardening, building something with power tools, or lifting something repetitively. This can leave your hands fatigued heading back to a week of massage.
What about hobbies and activities? Some massage therapists have hand-intensive hobbies like playing an instrument or knitting/sewing. Working a full massage schedule and then using your hands repetitively on days off doesn’t provide any downtime for your money makers to rejuvenate.
This may seem like common sense but you would be surprised how many massage therapists don’t use days off as time to rest their hands. This is part of good self-care. Get two days, back-to-back, of rest, when possible, for the best chance your hands will be revived and ready to tackle another week of clients.
Massage therapists are unique in the repetitive use of the upper extremities. This being the nature of the job means utmost care must be taken to mitigate injury and strain to the hands. The job is repetitive but by working smarter, massage therapists can sustain a long and profitable career.
Hand-Care Tip #4: Shake and Stretch
With all massage work in front of the body, and below, massage therapists tend to become rounded forward at the shoulder with a forward head posture becoming present. This posture, along with repetitive grasping motions by the hands, leaves the body screaming for opening stretches.
Any stretch that counteracts these forward/grasping movements is golden for massage therapists’ self-care. Lots of opening the chest, extension of the wrists, and back are helpful as well as opening the palms and individual fingers.
Stretches to try:
• Palms together, fingers flat, wrists at 90 degrees to stretch is helpful for many muscle groups.
• Backbends or supported backbends, cat-cow in yoga, and cobra pose are all good examples of stretches to open the body at the end of a workday.
• Open the palm by hyperextending the wrist, one at a time, and then each finger. Taking time to stretch each digit back into hyperextension of the metacarpal phalangeal joint allows the hands a reprieve from the grasping movements massage requires.
Hand shake: Shaking the hands back and forth quickly is a highly effective way to rejuvenate tired hands during the workday. Shaking invigorates the hands and brings blood flow to the area, giving new life and a tingling feeling to overworked hands.
[Download a free hand-pain report, to see if you’re making common hand-use mistakes.]
Hand-Care Tip #5: Practice Acute-Hand-Pain Care
There comes a time in every massage therapist’s career when self-care is needed for acute pain. Those days when hands are actively hurting require immediate action.
What to do when hands hurt:
• Ice massage is one easy-to-administer self-care option for hands.
• Ice bath – soak for 5-7 minutes to start
• Paraffin soak/dip – hot wax
Ice massage is quick and easy if you aren’t a fan of the ice bath. Either is helpful when inflammation is present from overusing the hands.
Paraffin wax will help increase the blood flow to the hands and relax the tissues. When acute pain is present, follow with ice massage to address the inflammation. A warm-cold combo is what many therapists find works best for pain reduction.
During self-massage, treat the tendons along the metacarpal bones, stopping to hold any tender spots. Some spots may be exquisitely tender, so take the time needed to release those and revisit for more self-massage the next day.
Rest. You know you should. Massage therapists are dedicated, go-getters, who want to help as many people as possible. We can and do change people’s quality of life with our skills.
We also tend to put ourselves last on the “care” list. Resting a body that’s asking for it should never be ignored. From experience, that “ask” will turn into a “scream” if ignored and that’s no way to treat our most important business asset.
Take care of your hands. Those money makers are valuable and irreplaceable in what you do.
Devote the time to practicing all massage strokes with both hands, making sure good body mechanics are set from the floor to your hands. Then challenge yourself to use your hands sparingly. It’s fun to try and new ways to do things arise!
Rest those hands, and give them the self-care they need so they can serve you and your clients for years to come.
[Check back the last Thursday of every month for a new article by Angela Lehman, an educator who runs The Fit MT, providing self-care information to massage therapists.]
About the Author
Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. She runs The Fit MT. With her kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise and body mechanics to prolong their careers. Search massagemag.com to read her The Fit MT column on topics including body mechanics, gut health and more.