As a long-time teacher of Thai Massage, I have often been asked if there are any contraindications to Thai Massage. What exactly does this mean?
- Are there clients who should not receive Thai Massage?
- Are there any conditions that should not be treated?
- Are there certain risks to be avoided?
In the medical lingo, these are called ‘contraindications.’ You need to know about them.
But… if you expect to see a specific list of conditions that are blacklisted for Thai Massage work, you will be disappointed. However, you will get something much more valuable:
The Bigger Picture For Thai Massage Work
First of all, let’s look at this from a broader perspective. Many therapists make statements that such-and-such condition (“pathology” in more scientific terms) is a contraindication for massage work.
Such statements are a massive generalization – and here is why
Massage is not just one thing, like a “one-size-fits-all” therapy. There are dozens or even hundreds of various healing arts therapies out there.
What may be a contraindication for one style
might be perfectly okay for another style
The following examples will give you an idea of why you cannot generalize and proclaim that a certain condition is a contraindication to massage therapy.
- A skin condition on the head would be a contraindication for head massage, but not for foot massage
- Pregnancy would be a contraindication for strong Thai Massage stretches around the midsection, but not for head massage or hand massage
- Osteoporosis (weak, brittle bones) might be a contraindication for deep tissue massage, but not for abdominal massage like Chi Nei Tsang for example
- A recent knee operation might be a contraindication for leg stretches, but not for Craniosacral therapy
Here is the idea: Contraindications generally only apply to certain types of bodywork, but not to ALL types in general. That would be like pouring the baby out with the bath water.
Now admittedly there are contraindications that really do apply to every kind of massage therapy. Let’s say someone has an infectious disease and just shouldn’t be around people to avoid infecting them.
But many other conditions are not so clear-cut. For example, there are therapists who say that you shouldn’t work on cancer patients. However, there are massage therapists who specialize in cancer patients.
Is pregnancy a contraindication for Thai Foot Massage?
There are therapists who insist that you should not give a pregnant woman a Thai Foot Massage because there are some acupressure points that can result in miscarriage.
They are mostly located on the sides of the ankle.
But again we have to take this with a grain of salt. It is one thing to apply strong and sustained pressure on such acupressure points.
But it is an entirely different thing to touch the sides of the ankle during a gentle foot massage without specifically pressing on these points.
Then you need to consider the stage of pregnancy. The risk of miscarriage is greatest in the first trimester.
If you practice in a litigious country like the US, you have to consider the possibility that a pregnant woman might miscarry and blame it on a massage therapist.
So to protect yourself you should rather be safe than sorry when it comes to those acupressure points. In other words, you should avoid them on pregnant women, even if there is no actual risk.
The actual risk is hard to verify. After all, no pregnant woman will volunteer in an experiment that is designed to induce a miscarriage.
Contraindications for Thai Massage are case-specific
The bottom line is that you cannot categorically state that one particular condition is a contraindication to massage in general.
Contraindications never apply to “massage therapy” across the board. It is always a case-by-case situation.
How to gather the required information
Since many or most conditions are not evident just by looking at a client, you have to ask.
In some countries like the US, it is common for first-time clients to fill out an intake form that lists all kinds of medical conditions.
In other countries, like in Asia, intake forms are hardly ever used (except by high-end spas).
In the absence of a form, the therapist needs to verbally ask the client if there are any medical conditions, like previous or present diseases, fractures, operations, implants, other medical treatments, medications, etc.
In my experience, clients will often not remember some conditions if they are not specifically asked.
How to adjust your work in Thai Massage
In most cases, it is not necessary to turn a client away for a particular condition. Instead, you can adjust the treatment in various ways:
In the Thai Healing Massage family of bodywork, there are many styles and variations represented.
For example, just switching from direct pressure or stretch techniques to motion techniques from our Thai Rocking Massage system will often be a good solution.
Or, someone might have osteoporosis. In this case, you should not apply strong pressure on the bones. But you can do rocking techniques instead which are very effective and pose no danger to the bones.
Contraindication or pathology knowledge
Sometimes therapists report that they have learned in their massage school that if someone has such-and-such condition, they should not receive massage.
However, these schools are generally referring to the style of massage which they are teaching. Therefore such advice is generally not applicable across the board to all types of therapies.
If you want to know specifically about pathology and contraindications you could invest in a reference book like Ruth Werner’s “A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology.”
If you don’t feel confident or knowledgeable enough to work on specific issues, then don’t.
Refer the client to a therapist or health practitioner who specializes in this condition or who is more experienced with it. The old saying “If in doubt, get out” is quite applicable here.
Specific Thai Massage contraindications
The longer you do Thai Massage work and the more you expand your skills, you will find that the list of conditions that you cannot work on keeps shrinking.
In my 20 years of doing hands-on Thai Massage work, I cannot remember a single case where I had to decline to work on a client for a particular condition.
Maybe I was a bit lucky, but mostly I attribute this to the fact that I can easily switch between massage styles and modify and adjust any of those styles in a way that works for a client.
Many times contraindications are not a black-and-white issue, but they require adjustment and modification of your work. So the real issue is often not the contraindication, but your experience, your skill level, and your knowledge about those conditions.
So when students ask me if there are contraindications to Thai Massage, there is no easy answer that lists a number of conditions that you cannot work on. It’s always a case-by-case situation and depends on the condition and the kind of therapy.
Thai Massage versus Western massage
We have to remember that Thai Massage is an ancient healing system that was specifically designed to work on many conditions.
However, it does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a larger system of natural or traditional medicine in Thailand.
This includes massage, herbal treatments, knowledge about energy flow in the body, and even shamanic practices.
Western massage is often seen as a way to relax the body and not much more. If there is any real health issue, the therapist will refer the client to someone who might be more qualified to deal with it.
In contrast, Thai Massage was never meant to be primarily a relax-massage system. It has existed for hundreds of years, long before there was modern medical science.
Along with the other aspects of traditional Thai medicine, Thai Massage was mainly used as a system to deal with and heal many different kinds of conditions.
Conclusion for Thai Massage contraindications
All situations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The better your skills are, the more ways you know how to work on people.
The greater your experience is, the less you will encounter conditions that prevent you from working on someone.
Most people can be touched and worked on in some way. Thai Massage is a system that has evolved in Thailand to heal, not just to relax.
Thai Healing Massage Academy offers a wide range of online therapy training courses that will go a long way in teaching you how to deal with many conditions. At the same time, it is important that you know what your limits are by learning about possible contraindications.
Contraindications are not a list of conditions that are summarily excluded from all types of massage therapy. They need to be seen in context and in a relationship with a specific healing arts modality, and with the skills of a particular therapist.
The author, Shama Kern, is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for over two decades, and he is the author of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.