Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Soapbox

Massage careers are typically short -- three to four years, on average. There are two reasons for this. One is that it doesn't pay well, particularly if you're working for someone else; and the sort of people who are drawn to massage therapy are often not good business people, so that a lot of them -- who are perfectly good therapists -- simply can't get and keep a business going on their own. Keeping books, networking, and advertising; paying office rent and quarterly taxes; reckoning expenses and setting prices, are not in their skill set. They end up working at spas for fifteen bucks an hour, with no benefits, doing half a dozen massages a day. Which is hard physical labor, and not something many people are up to doing for long. And not what they had wanted to do in the first place.

Which brings us to the second reason most massage careers are short: people wear their bodies out. The most important thing I learned in massage school was nothing to do with massage techniques per se: it was simply learning how to do physical work without hurting myself. How to stand, how to let my shoulders settle, how to apply pressure with my weight, smoothly, from my center of gravity, rather than by pushing and jerking. I typically don't feel at all tired after a two hour massage: on the contrary, I feel light and energized and joyful. I'm grateful to East-West College for drumming body mechanics into me. It wasn't something they talked about every once in a while: it was something they emphasized in every class, every practical demonstration. All my instructors had been therapists for fifteen or twenty years -- three or four times the average career length -- so they all knew how important it was.

It has nothing to do with how big and muscled you are. I have clients who picked me because I'm big burly guy, and they imagine I'll give a strong massage. That's lucky for me, but it's nonsense, as anyone who's had a massage from one of those tiny, ancient Thai masseuses can testify: what matters is not your weight and muscle, but knowing how to use it. If I find myself straining, using my muscles hard, I know that I'm doing something wrong. It should all be easy. And the benefit runs both ways: a massage from someone who's working too hard doesn't feel right. It jolts and jerks. It doesn't feel safe.

The things I learned in school spill over into everyday life, of course. I sit differently than I used to. I don't use the backs of chairs much: I tend to sit on the edges of chairs now, with my belly thrust forward and my shoulders back, so my spine can have its natural curve. I noticed the other day that in the morning when I get up out of my bed, which is down on the floor, I no longer push myself up flat-handed, which is murder on the wrist. I use my knuckles, like any sensible ape, so that my wrist is straight. A straight wrist can bear a couple hundred pounds' force easily. A bent one can be injured by twenty.

The other piece of body maintenance is the trigger-point self-treatment, which I mostly learned on my own, first from Clair Davies' wonderful distillation, and then from Travell & Simon's wonderful book, his source. This has been a godsend. The general knowledge about what musculoskeletal pain is and how to fix it is abysmal, both among the public and among the medical community. Every day people tell me about how they've been diagnosed with ligament injuries, tendonitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel, and bone spurs. I can't legally object to these diagnoses -- that's not within my scope of practice, as a massage therapist -- but secretly I know that seventy-five percent of them are crap. Some of these people are in tremendous pain, and they've been told that nothing but general analgesics or dubiously effective surgery will help. Mostly they just have trigger points in the muscles, from bad sitting habits or muscle overuse or trauma. It all has nothing to do with deformations of bone, or connective tissue injuries. It's just muscle injury, and muscles, which are richly supplied with blood and designed to recover quickly from damage, heal up remarkably quickly, if they're given the chance.

What people don't want to hear is this: you have to let injured muscles heal, and you have to stop re-injuring them. It's mostly as simple as that. You can't sit stock still at a desk for ten hours a day, with your shoulders hunched and your back slumped and and your elbows unsupported, and expect your muscles to just take it. They won't. It's not because you're getting old, and it's not because you're fat, and it's not because you're stressed. It's because you're abusing your muscles. Muscles need to move often and freely.

I don't think anyone should work at a desk for a full workday. If you have to, then you must take care of yourself, by doing, at a minimum, this:

1) Take all of the breaks legally allowed you, and get the hell away from the desk. Stand up and walk away. Don't, for God's sake, spend your breaktime sitting. Walk, run, dance, do gymnastics, stand on your head. Lie down, if at all possible. Do anything but sit.

2) Make excuses to get up during your worktime. When I'm doing data entry at the Foundation, every fifteen or twenty minutes I need to print out a report of the commited data. Every time I hop up and walk the thirty feet to the printer to fetch the print-out. It's not efficient. I could let them pile up and fetch them all at once, and save myself five or ten minutes a day. I do it deliberately, though, to force myself out of the chair. I believe that the better blood flow probably makes me a smarter and more efficient worker anyway, so that it's worth it even in work terms, but whether it does or not, I'm going to keep doing it.

3) Pay attention to the ergonomics of your workplace, and experiment with changing it. Periodically bring your awareness to how your body feels when you sit this way or that way, try adjusting your chair higher or lower, try having your elbows supported, try having your keyboard and monitor in different places, at different heights. Try sticking a paperback book under one buttock or the other, & see if your spine likes that better.

If you're doing a full day of desk work, be aware that you're undertaking something that's very difficult for the human body. If you were digging ditches all day, or cutting down trees, or scything a wheatfield, you'd know that, and no one would find it remarkable that you wanted to lie down and rest, do something different, when you got a break. Desk work is supposed to be easy. We don't think of it as something that strains our physical abilities to their utmost. But it does. To do it and remain uninjured, over the long haul, requires a lot of attention and a lot of effort. It won't just happen. What will just happen is back pain, neck pain, spasms, cramps, searing pain in the wrists (elbows, knees, hips), aching eyes, and headaches.

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