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  • On Your Mark

Secret Truth About Massage Therapy in NYC [many lack clinical training]

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

New Yorkers often work long days filled with tension and stress, so it’s no wonder you would want to unwind and heal at the hands of a massage therapist, but when you do so, you are literally putting your body into someone else’s hands, so it’s important to choose carefully.

There are over 200 different massage techniques and types, all treating different needs and providing various benefits. Therapists often specialize in just one, or some of these, and won’t always know if their massage style is really the one best suited for your body.

The vast majority of "underground" and inexpensive massage places don’t have a license to practice massage in New York and have not received any sort of clinical training at all. Even my regular clients go there occasionally to save money or last-minute when I am not available. In so many cases, many more than I can count, I have to undo the mess. - Mark

With that said, there are a lot of actually Licensed Massage Therapists in New York State who offer everything from therapeutic and body healing massage in private settings, medical massage in physical therapy and chiropractic offices and relaxation massage in spas and holistic healing centers. In fact, the New York Department of Education estimates that there are over 14,000 Licensed Massage Therapists in New York State and close to 3,000 in NYC as of July 1, 2015.

This number is no small feat considering that New York has the highest education and testing requirements in the country to become a Licensed Massage Therapist, and the state now also requires continuing education for therapists to maintain their license.

With so many options, how do I choose just one?

The simplest answer is to choose a massage therapist based on what you want them to do. Which means looking at their specialties, or the types of massage that is offered. This is where I always see the most confusion when it comes to massage.

What is the difference between all the various massage techniques offered?

The biggest difference relates to the goal of the treatment, and how it is applied. I’ll go over the more common and popular massage therapies available in the Big Apple, starting with massage that alleviates pain, and finishing with those that are only for relaxation.

Massage Therapies for Treating Pain and Specific Injury

Clinical Massage: Also known as medical massage or therapeutic massage, this type of massage therapy is focused on physical healing and management. The massage therapist stresses function and recovery of muscles, with measureable results. This is the best type of massage for those suffering from pain or injury.

A clinical massage therapist may use many different techniques to get these results including: deep tissue massage, trigger point massage, rolfing, myofascial release, structural integration, neuromuscular therapy, active release techniques and perhaps thai massage techniques, among others. But look for one that is certified in Active Release Techniques (I'm a little biased of course), as this manual therapy technique has been known to produce the best results.

When looking for a great clinical massage therapist, it is important to find one that can customize these techniques to suit your body’s needs. Without this flexibility and intrinsic knowledge, you can cause further pain and damage to your body, especially if you currently sustain injuries. So don’t be fooled by massage therapists who can only do “Deep Tissue Massage” but call themselves clinical massage therapists.

One client who has a history of moderate to severe neck injuries, and who knows better, came to see me last week after going to a “Deep Tissue” specialist and she was in agony. They pushed on her spine and she didn’t speak up, in part because of the language barrier. The bottom line is that you usually get what you pay for. I am an expert injury therapist while they are amateurs at best. - Mark

For more on medical massage, see our Neck and Shoulder Pain article.

Sports Massage: This type of massage is very similar to clinical massage but sometimes gets categorized separately. Sports massage may include the same techniques listed above under clinical massage but with a specific focus on sports performance. These techniques and the overall intention are well suited to athletes and anyone leading very active lifestyles, such as dancers and marathon runners. It is statistically proven that athletes tend to perform better after having received a sports massage.

A client came to me with chronic shin- splints, a painful injury experienced by many runners. By targeting the muscles indicated in this condition, the Tibilais Posterior, Flexor Digitorum Longus and Flexor Hallucis Longus, she was running pain-free within 4 sessions over a 2-week period. In her half marathon two months later, she posted a personal best time. Any time the shin splints begin to creep back in, she comes to see me for a session or two to stop the problem in its tracks. - Mark

Massage Therapies for Relaxation and Stress Relief

Swedish Massage: This is the most common type of massage available, and is what most people think of when they imagine massage. The massage is often offered in a spa as a luxury treatment and often is accompanied by aromatherapy as well. While certainly therapeutic and emotionally calming, this massage technique is not intended to resolve muscle tension and pain. In fact, all spa massage is more intended for relaxation and well being, than actual pain relief.

Energey Techniques: There so many powerful hands-on treatment modalities that rely on a gentle, more energetic touch. These include Reiki, Polarity, Craniosacral, Reflexology and Qi Gong, to name a few. These techniques can provide a holistic healing experience that helps one find balance throughout the body in a way that creates physical, mental and spiritual harmony.

Hot Stone Massage: As the name implies, your body is weighed down with hot stones that the masseuse also uses to massage your body with. The heat produced by this technique is relaxing to the muscles and good for minor tension.

Shiatsu: This is an ancient technique from Japan that combines gentle stretching and tension on pressure points to improve the balance of energy in one’s body. There is no clinical evidence that this technique provides healing, but many people report stress relief from it. It can be performed with deep pressure for physical relief or light touch for energetic purposes.

Thai Massage: A more rigorously relaxing massage in which the massage therapist works your entire body moving it into yoga like stretches and loosening joints. The masseuse might even use their feet (walking on you) to achieve this. The massage is sometimes referred to as “Yoga for the lazy”.

Now that you know the types of massage typically offered, here are a few things to look for when deciding on a massage therapist.

As it is when choosing any product or service, choosing a massage therapist comes back to goals. What are you seeking in a massage therapist? Is it for pain management, mental health, because massage therapy was recommended by your Physical Therapist, Chiropractor or Physician? This goal will be the key for whether you choose to opt for a spa massage therapist or a clinical massage therapist.

Licensing: Again, most states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, regulate the massage therapy profession through licensing requirements. So when choosing your massage therapist, especially if it is for clinical, medical purposes, check to see if the therapist you are considering has a valid license.

Certifications and Specializations: In addition, there are many certifications and specializations within the profession. These include a very wide range of therapies, such as medical massage which is a broad term that is often referred to as therapeutic massage, clinical massage and sports massage. It also includes relaxation techniques like Swedish massage often offered in spas and wellness centers as well as healing, energetic therapies such as reiki, craniosacral and polarity. There are many more types of treatments and settings where they take place.

Client Testimonials: Whether it’s a direct referral from your Medical Doctor, Physical Therapist, Chiropractor or from a work colleague, family member or friend, word of mouth is often the surefire way to choose your massage therapist. In addition, professional web sites often post provider listings to help you find a massage therapist near you. Business search web sites such as Yelp have business profiles that feature client reviews, social media pages often show reviews and a therapist may have his or her own web site with client testimonials.

Your Experience: It doesn’t matter how many licenses, certifications, years of experience and positive reviews a therapist might have. After your first session, you need to decide if that massage therapist is the right one for you. If not, keep looking!

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