Massage takes toll on N.M. therapists

August 6, 2018

As massage therapists knead away knots in clients’ muscles and learn about the physical and emotional burdens causing them, their own minds and bodies become strained.

The job’s high demand on hands and wrists puts massage therapists at risk of developing injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Deep tissue work and other massage techniques also can lead to neck and shoulder pain.

“We’re so used to carrying tension, we’re not aware until someone touches you,” said Margarita Quevedo, who works at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa in Northern New Mexico.

Massage is a growing industry in the U.S., generating $16 billion in 2017, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. The group estimates there were between 335,000 and 385,000 massage therapists and massage school students in the nation that year, including thousands licensed to practice in New Mexico.

Some of them, like Quevedo, are employed at resorts, spas and clinics and can make workers’ compensation claims for work-related injuries. In the last five years, massage therapists have filed 26 claims through the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration for various physical strains, tears and injuries.

But most massage therapists are independent contractors with individual insurance policies. Proving to an insurer that massage is the source of chronic pain or a muscle tear can be difficult, therapists say, which makes preventive efforts even more important for workers in the industry.

The key to preventing burnout or injury is self-care, local massage therapists say.

“We’re told at a young age that self-care is not valid,” said Clara Gertz, a licensed therapist for the past nine years who has spent much of that time working at the Ten Thousand Waves spa near Santa Fe. “For massage therapists, it’s more than self-care. It’s an investment.”

She added: “I don’t want to rely on an insurance company to cover me. I can’t ever get my health back.”

Her self-care routine involves daily stretches, yoga, acupuncture, backpacking trips and massages from colleagues. Self-care could be anything, she said — including watching a movie with a friend or choosing to stay in — as long as it addresses your needs.

Quevado, a 12-year veteran of the massage industry, also has developed self-care rituals to ensure she is able to overcome the pain and stress of her work.

“Over time,” she said of her regime, “it helps you get rid of stuff in your body that otherwise accumulates.”

She gets acupuncture treatments weekly to help ease the pain of arthritis in her hands as well as tension in her neck and shoulders. Every few months, she gets a massage. And she always makes time for hikes and other activities that offer mental relief, Quevedo said.

Tom Sabo of Santa Fe, who has worked in massage for 15 years, does special stretches and meditation, and ices his hands daily to stay fit for his job.

“You kind of become your own physical therapist in order to keep up with what you’re doing,” Sabo said.

“You can misuse your body,” he added. “Really, what knocks everyone out is the physicality. … People ask me what kind of forearm workout I do, and I say, ‘I do massage therapy.’ ”

While working part time as a message therapist, Sabo started training as a blacksmith and now works full-time at Rippel Metal Fabrication in Santa Fe.

“I work physically harder now as a metalworker and I’m less exhausted,” he said.

Massage therapy can be emotionally exhausting, Gertz said. Part of her self-care work involves building strong boundaries with clients, so when they discuss their worries and problems as she eases their muscles, she doesn’t take on that strain.

“They can unload all they want,” she said, “but it’s not for me to pick it up.”

Know before you go

Professional massage providers say that although the practice has been growing in the U.S. and is now widely accepted as a medical treatment, they still encounter clients with misunderstandings. They offer a few tips for people seeking massage.

• While “masseuse” and “masseur” mean a man or woman, respectively, who provides massage, professionals in the business say the term has developed a derogatory connotation. They prefer to be called massage therapists.

• Therapists say they occasionally have clients who mistakenly believe the treatment is sexual in nature. This is never the case, even when a massage is intended for relaxation and not a treatment targeting a specific medical issue.

• People new to massage are sometimes uncomfortable with nudity. Therapists say clients are always mostly covered by a sheet, and they can keep on undergarments.

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