People are drawn to the practice of massage therapy for one simple reason: Job satisfaction. They love the satisfaction derived from helping to heal others. Once they’ve dedicated themselves to this new career, and to building their practice, the next logical question is, “How long can I do this? Is this a lifetime career?” The difference between a ‘No’ and a ‘Yes’ answer often can be found in ergonomics.
Massage therapy is physically demanding and the wear and tear on a massage therapist’s body can be debilitating. Injuries can occur in almost any area — from strained thumbs, fingers and hands, to neck, lower back and hip pain. While the importance of proper body mechanics can be (and usually is) taught in schools, the truth of the matter is that the therapist is only half the equation. Joseph E. Muscolino, from Connecticut Center School of Massage, and author of The Muscular System Manual and The Musculoskeletal Anatomy Coloring Book, says, “As massage therapists, we soothe the bodies, minds, and souls of our clients. In so doing, our minds and hearts may be soothed as well, however, our bodies are doing the work, and giving massage can be very hard work. Ergonomics is about ensuring that the energy that our body expends, i.e., the work that our body does is optimal. In my opinion, two factors are the major determinant to optimal body mechanics when giving massage: proper technique and proper equipment.”
So, the equipment (massage table, stools, massage accessories) is the other partner contributing to the longevity or brevity of a massage career is the therapeutic equipment. Those who design therapeutic equipment with ergonomics in mind, take the use of the tables and the therapist’s body mechanics into account, realizing that the equipment is part of the very foundation of the therapist’s career.
What is Ergonomics?
According to the Ergonomics Society of America website, ergonomics is an approach which puts human needs and capabilities at the focus of designing products and work systems. While it sounds very science-y, it is really just about us. The aim is to ensure that people and technology operate in harmony, so that there are fewer errors, greater effectiveness and fewer repetitive strain injuries and work-related accidents. Fewer accidents and strains mean greater longevity and productivity. For the massage therapist it means a more robust livelihood and helping more people.
For the massage therapist ergonomics means a more robust livelihood and helping more people.
Underlying all ergonomics is careful analysis of the human activity – in this case, massage. The designer must understand all of the demands being made on the massage practitioner, his/her hands, knees, hips, legs, etc., and the likely effects of supportive or unsupportive body mechanics. In the case of the massage practitioner, ergonomics are demonstrated in a massage table‘s design through table height, width and access-oriented designs (allowing close-in bodywork in the proper positions), stability (to maximize therapist’s impact while minimizing movement) and material choice (strength and safety).
The second key ingredient is to understand how it all impacts the massage. Great ergonomics for the therapist doesn’t mean much if the client isn’t comfortable, relaxed and receptive to the work. The need to allow for human variability is critical – the people involved have a very wide range of capabilities and limitations (including the disabled and elderly) for being massaged. In the case of spa equipment, ergonomics are demonstrated through features such as electronically adjustable table height (including extra-low range) for ease of getting on and off a table, foam softness for client comfort, tilt function for patients with sinus and cardiac issues, and environmentally-friendly fabric composition to minimize allergy-related sensitivities.
Ergonomically designed tables also take into consideration the modality and functionality of the individual practitioner. Not all tables can be designed to do all jobs ergonomically. An intimate knowledge of body mechanics for your focus is central to choosing the right equipment. For example, the demands of Structural Integration are going to be different from those of Cranio-Sacral work.
“Good ergonomics in equipment and therapeutic approach are the means through which we maximize how we use our bodies to deliver treatment,” said John Latz, President of the Institute for Structural Integration. “For our approach it is crucial to have a table that is incredibly strong to support our physical exertion as we lean into our patient; has an excellent width for allowing the practitioner to work on top; and one that’s set fairly low to enhance access and minimize excess reaching.”
Donna Alcorn an Instructor at the Baltimore School of Massage (York Campus) concurred, “Cranio-Sacral practitioners are often seated and need to be able to comfortably move around the table to do their work. If there is understructure or cables in the way, it can be a real problem. Also, the table has to be so adjustable that each and every practitioner can personalize the table (and stool) to get comfortable enough to stay focused on this type of deep, slow work. Ergonomics allows us to simply and effectively do our work.”
Ergonomics Humanizes Technology
This commitment to ‘human-centered design’ has an essential ‘humanizing’ influence on the rapid developments in technology that are influencing our lives. If a company designs a product that works to both the benefit of the worker and the user, it’s a win/win scenario allowing both parties to derive maximum benefit and minimum wear and tear from the very human practice of massage. The impact is simple, yet profound: A practitioner who can minimize or eliminate the wear and tear on his own body will have a longer, more fulfilling career.
Most importantly, if a table or tool is ergonomically smart it will seem to disappear as it is seamlessly incorporated into the treatment, becoming a natural extension of the patient/client relationship. This is very important to the success of the practitioner. After all, aside from her hands and training, the table is the single most important tool upon which the practitioner’s whole livelihood is hanging.