Medical Massage Rub You Wrong?

Why the Term “Medical Massage” Rubs Me the Wrong Way

Medical MassageI finally figured out why the term “medical massage” rubs me the wrong way. In recent years, the term has popped up as a new label to describe existing clinical massage techniques, and as someone who enjoys working in the clinical massage field, I am happy to see “medical massage” emerge as a growing area of interest. I just hate the term “medical” next to the word “massage.” To me, it’s a signal that self-respect among the profession is still a work in progress. Let me explain.

First, I see a critical definitional difference between using the word “clinical” versus the word “medical” to describe a massage. In my view, “clinical” says my approach is reasoned and logical, backed by training in the relevant sciences (anatomy, physiology, kinesiology) and a good understanding of common conditions that are treatable with massage. “Massage” describes my method of treatment: hands-on soft tissue manipulation. “Medical,” on the other hand, evokes the concept of medicine (pharmacopeia) and those licensed to prescribe and administer it (doctors, nurses). Because massage works mechanically with the body (rather than with drugs) to achieve desired outcomes, to describe it as “medical” strikes me as definitionally–if not professionally–self-nullifying.

I think the term “medical massage” is a product of the massage world’s ongoing crusade to restore an image some still see as tarnished. They need the public to know they are legitimate, and calling themselves “medical” immediately triggers associations with that most legitimate of professions, the medical one. If massage therapy really does have a respect problem, attaching itself to the coattails of the medical profession is—in my view—the wrong way to remedy it. The right way to remedy it is to accept who we are and respect what we do, because we can’t demand it from others unless we first have it for ourselves. Putting on scrubs and calling our bodywork “medical” comes across—to me, at least—as defensive and misguided.

Massage is a wonderful therapy to promote for all the ways it is different from medicine. Most massage therapists I know are proud of being an alternative to Western/pharmacy-based medicine, not in a hurry to align themselves with it. Rather than selling massage for its
(dubious) similarity to a medical treatment, I think we should all take pride in what distinguishes it from one: it is drug-free; it works with your body’s natural healing mechanisms, rather than overriding or interfering with them; it is performed in a pleasant and relaxing environment; we charge by time and we give you our full attention for all of it. These are all good differences. These are not differences to obscure or apologize for, but rather reasons to respect ourselves for what we do and how we do it.

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