There’s a lot they can tell about you, from your occupation to your stress levels — and even serious health conditions.
By Julie Kendrick via HuffPost
If just reading the word “massage” sends you into a reverie of lavender-scented candles and a best-of-Yanni playlist, you probably know how wonderful it can be to receive treatment from a bodywork professional. But while you’re lying there in a blissed-out state, do you ever wonder what your therapist is noticing about your overall health, how you’re dealing with stress and possibly even what kind of work you’ve been doing?
We talked to professionals all over the country to learn what they notice during a session — and why it’s important.
What they notice when you first arrive
Before you even get on the table, your massage therapist is paying attention.
If your massage therapist walks behind you on the way to the treatment room, there might be a good professional reason for that.
“I ask clients to walk ahead of me down the hall,” said massage therapist Dolly Wallace, who is president of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. “I observe their gait and look to see if shoulders are elevated, if one shoulder or hip is higher than the other, if the head is tilting right or left, or if feet either supinate or pronate.”
During the intake process, therapists are alert for clues.
“I take note of things like freedom of movement, symmetry, breathing patterns and body language,” said massage therapist Cindy Williams. “I also notice things like how fast or loud someone is speaking, how they’re gesturing, and whether they seem fatigued or depressed.”
What they can tell when the massage gets started
“As soon as I start working, I can tell which areas of the body need more work by the way the muscles and soft tissue feel under my hands,” said massage therapist Kristin Coverly, also director of professional education for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals. “I let the body talk to me, to tell me not only which areas to work, but which techniques to use and what level of pressure to apply. What I’m feeling and all of this information my hands are receiving help me make decisions about how much time to spend in a certain area, what techniques to use and what level of pressure is appropriate and beneficial.”
How you’re moving through your day will quickly become apparent to your massage therapist.
“Neck, shoulders and low back are easily the biggest source of complaint for my clients, because so many of them spend large spans of their day sitting, whether it’s in front of a computer, commuting to work or watching TV,” Treat said.
In addition, massage therapists often know if you’re a runner, because runners often have weak glute muscles, which Treat said is commonly known as “runner’s butt.” And if you’ve got small children at home, she can usually tell from the one-sided “hip hike.”
“It’s caused by carrying kids on one hip predominantly, and it usually results in low back pain,” Treat said.
The work you do — and your stress levels — show up in your body
Our jobs can take a toll on our bodies, which massage therapists notice.
“Many times, I can guess a client’s occupation by their symptoms and findings,” Wallace said. “Long-distance truck drivers will complain of low back pain from the constant jarring of their seat due to bumpy road conditions. Athletes often experience groin pain from having overstretched adductors. Students have neck, shoulder and back pain caused by carrying heavy backpacks.”
Treat also noted: “My clients who work in the trades, like plumbers, electricians, carpenters and drywall contractors, will often come in with overdeveloped forearms, low back pain and a sore neck.”
On or off the job, we all experience stress. And since we’re such unique little unicorns, we carry our stress in different places.
“Each client has a tell-tale stress sign that I can feel for and address during a session, whether it’s the upper shoulders, neck, low back, glutes or jaw,” Coverly said. “An important part of my job is to educate my clients about the areas that tighten when they’re stressed and encourage them to practice targeted self-care to help alleviate pain and discomfort between massage sessions.”
Massage therapist Jeffrey Montoya agreed that stress patterns vary from person to person.
“It’s said that ‘our issues are in our tissues, and that our biography becomes our biology,’ Montoya said. “I do notice patterns, such as how shoulder tension can be a sign that a person is burdened or feeling a lot of responsibility. People with back pain often lack a feeling of being supported in family or work. And anxiety is often associated with stomach and intestinal health issues.”
Professional bodywork can help identify more serious health issues
It’s not all about relaxation, though, because there is a significant health-promoting component to a regular massage regimen. And some of that health-related help might be totally unexpected, thanks to a vigilant therapist. In fact, research about bodywork professionals has shown that they can play a strategic role in helping achieve timely diagnoses for many patients.
The most commonly noticed potential health issues are abnormal-looking moles, or ones that change in appearance over time, especially if they’re on the back or another part of the body that isn’t usually seen. Many an eagle-eyed massage therapist has sent a client to a dermatologist for a timely diagnosis.
Other issues also can arise. “If I notice lumps or adhesions that don’t have the same texture as a regular muscle knot, that’s a good reason to be seen by a doctor,” Treat said. “I had been working regularly with a client, when a lump in their neck seemed different than the others. I suggested making a doctor appointment, and it turned out they had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thankfully caught in the early stages.”
Their work extends beyond the purely physical, too. If you start crying during treatment, your massage therapist will understand.
“Touch can sometimes trigger a long-buried memory of abuse or injury,” Wallace said. “When those memories are triggered, I’m ready to refer them to a mental health expert who can help.”
There’s value in being “seen, heard and understood”
“People usually don’t get much time with their primary care provider, but massage therapists are spending an hour at a time with you,” noted Whitney Lowe, director of the Academy of Clinical Massage. “Our clients often develop a strong sense of trust and end up telling us things they don’t tell their primary health care provider. This can be a significant issue, because they may relay important things that change our understanding of what is really going on with an underlying pathology or complaint.”
And finally, here’s a parting thought from massage therapist Angie Parris-Raney, advertising director for ABMP: “In the more than 20 years I’ve been in practice, I’ve come to understand that people just want to be heard, seen and understood, and to have their pain validated,” she said.
If you want to avoid all this and get in a massage at home, check out some of our favorite at-home products.
HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Mimicking shiatsu massage, this contoured kneading pillow features three-dimensional nodules that work to relax tight and overused muscles along the back, shoulders and neck. It also offers a soothing heating function and elastic velcro straps for securing to an office chair or car seat.
Promising review: "I bought this product back in March of 2021 after researching the top rated massagers of the year. Let me tell you, I use this thing almost every single day. As someone who has had severe scoliosis for over a decade, this is a game changer. It is extremely easy to use and very relaxing to lay on after a long day. It’s small but mighty, which was super important to me to have a significant amount of pressure. Not to mention the heat option is next level. I love that you can turn it off, because sometimes laying on it for an hour can make your skin a bit warm, but I almost always keep it on." ― Ray
2. A heated neck-and-shoulder massage sling
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This sling offers both gentle heat and four modes of bidirectional kneading massage along with two loops for resting hands and creating resistance. Although this is designed to target the neck and shoulders, the maker also claims this can be used for working on muscles in the lower back, feet and legs.
Promising review: "This massager is unbelievable. It is so good. Someone had one and recommended it and said it was great, but I was skeptical. However, it is fantastic and hits the spot. It is really nice because you can easily control whether you want a really hard massage on your back or a light massage." ― Charity
3. A heated foot massager
Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars
Made by the same brand responsible for the internet-beloved Renpho eye massager, this machine has ergonomic foot chambers that squeeze, knead and roll sore feet. In addition to the three compressive massage settings and intensities, there's an optional heating setting. This massager accommodates foot sizes up to a men's 12.
Promising review: "I was skeptical about buying a foot massager because I don’t like throwing money away at things that don’t work. But let me just say this is my new favorite thing ever! I am a preschool teacher who spends all day running around and on my feet so at the end of the day my feet are completely worn out and in pain. So I thought why not try out one of these things and see if it does anything . I am so happy with this purchase and even more surprised at how relaxing it is. This massager has three speeds and three settings to work on your feet. Also has a heating option. It’s easy to use and does its job well. It’s light to pick up and not as heavy as I would have thought." ― Katie M.
4. The Renpho heated eye massager
Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars
The Renpho eye massager, which has earned itself a formidable TikTok following, claims to alleviate eye strain, reduce eye dryness and more using oscillating pressure, rhythmic percussion massaging and built-in heating pads. These wireless goggles also offer Bluetooth connectivity so you can put on a song or relaxing music of your choice.Promising review: "As a sufferer of migraines, I was really excited/nervous to try this out. I tried it on when I first got it and worried it'd be bad when I had an actual migraine as the compression part isn't quiet; however, my first (and only so far) migraine was greatly helped with this regardless of the noise from the compression. My only complaint is that it's timed so it does eventually turn itself off announcing that the massage is complete. I easily just restart it until I'm satisfied or fallen asleep (which probably explains why they have that auto off function). That being said, it actually wasn't too bad to sleep in lol. It heats up quickly and the bluetooth option is great. I'm definitely in love with this thing. I've used it every day so far (mostly as a wind down ritual from my day) and it's my new favorite item." ― Rachel
5. An adjustable massage gun wall mount
Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars
If you swear by your massage gun but have trouble reaching areas of your back on your own, this adjustable wall mount might be useful. Compatible with most massage guns, this mount uses ratcheting buckles to hold the massage gun securely, along with powerful suction cups that stay on multiple wall surfaces.
Promising review: "Works just as described. [It] holds the massager so I can get my sore back without having to ask my husband to help." ― Michelle
6. A kneading massage seat cushion
Rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars
Great for the car or an existing office chair, this plush massage cushion is equipped with full seat-and-back-warming therapy and four kneading massage modes that can target specific areas of the back (or the entire back) at three varying intensities. The no-slip back also ensures that the cushion stays secure while in use and the seat provides a vibrational massage.
Promising review: "My husband ordered me this as an anniversary present and this is the best thing he has bought in years hands down!! I have a lot of shoulder, lower back and sciatica problems and I love that with this I can choose where I want massaged, how long, and it's got the vibration in the buttocks like the nail salon chairs! If you download the app for it you can control the time more also. I just downloaded it so I haven't played around it it a lot." ― kerensafrog
7. A leg and foot compression massager
Rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars
Address aches and improve circulation in calves and feet with this compression massager that simulates kneading motions. It has two massage modes and three intensities that can be controlled using the attached remote.
Promising review: "I love the way this product gently massages your calf, leg, and feet area. It seems to adjust to your leg size and applies the perfect amount of pressure. It’s a must have for me, as my circulation is poor, and my feet are always cold. And, the customer service was on point. When I contacted the company about an issue, they were prompt, they communicated well, and they did EXACTLY what they said they would to resolve the issue. I’m very impressed!" ― Johnny W.
8. A compression hand massager
Rating: 4.2 out of 5 stars
This cordless hand and wrist massager claims to combine heat with air compression and kneading to relieve soreness and arthritis symptoms. You can choose between two heat settings, three massage modes and three intensities.
Promising review: "I’m a massage therapist and sometimes my hands are stiff and sore. I put ice mitts on my hands for a few minutes and then use this heated massager. It works by filling the chambers with air and then rolling along the hand. Mild stretching and compression. It is very useful for relieving achy hands. Not as great as a massage with a therapist, but good for self care." ― Jonquil29