As a long time teacher of Thai Massage I have often been asked if there are any contraindications to Thai Massage. Now, if you expect to see a neat little list of conditions that represent a no-go for Thai Massage work, you will be disappointed. However I will give you something much more valuable:
THE BIGGER PICTURE
First of all let’s look at this from a broader massage perspective. I have heard from many therapists that such-and-such condition (“pathology” in more scientific terms) is a contraindication for massage.
Such statements are a massive generalization
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 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 mid section, 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
You get 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 which 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 foot massage?
There are therapists who insist that you should not do foot massage on pregnant women because there are some acupressure points which can result in miscarriage. They are mostly located on the sides of the ankle.
However 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. 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 which is designed to induce a miscarriage.
Contraindications 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’s 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 which 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 the clients will often not remember some conditions if they are not specifically asked.
How to adjust your work
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:
- Using different techniques
- Using a different style of massage
- Working only on certain parts of the body
- Working more gently
In the Thai Healing Massage family of bodywork there are many styles and variations represented. For example often just switching from direct pressure or stretch techniques to motion techniques from our Thai Rocking Massage system will often be a good solution.
For example someone might have osteoporosis and you should not apply strong pressure on the bones. However you can do rocking techniques instead which are very effective and pose no danger to the bones.
Contraindication or pathology knowledge
Sometimes therapists tell me 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. So such advice is generally not applicable across the board to all kinds 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 which you cannot work on keeps shrinking.
In my 16 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 which was meant to work on many conditions.
However it does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of the overall traditional Thai medical system. 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.
Thai Massage however was never meant to be 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.
Contraindications have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. The better your skills are, the more ways you know to work on people, and the greater your experience, the less you will encounter conditions that prevent you from working on someone.
Most people can be touched and worked on in some way, shape or form. Thai Massage is a system which has evolved in Thailand to heal, not just to relax.
Thai Healing Massage Academy offers a big range of therapeutic home study courses which 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 which are summarily excluded from all massage therapy. They need to be seen in context and in relationship with a specific healing arts modality and with the skills of a particular therapist.
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The author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for 16 years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org