Being a massage therapist and having had hundreds of massages I sometimes forget that getting a massage is a new experience for some people. There are lots of reasons that people come in for massage, some include interest in relieving chronic pain, softening up tight muscles, a need to make time for themselves or simply to see what all the hype is about. Whatever your reason, I’d encourage you to try it, at least once, to judge the practice for yourself. It’s also important to note that each therapist is different, so just because you didn’t like a session with one practitioner doesn’t mean you won’t like the session with another. Below I outline the basic steps of getting a massage. I try to point out differences that might arise if you come see me versus someone else or indulge in a spa experience.
Step 1: Make the Appointment
Oftentimes it’s pretty easy to make an appointment with a massage therapist. Doing a simple Google search will yield plenty of results. Find a therapist you feel comfortable seeing and schedule a session. For my practice, I take appointments through email (email@example.com) and then use an online scheduling tool to keep track of everything. That tool will send you an email confirmation and then a reminder two days prior to the appointment. A lot of spas will have systems like this too and with some you can even go in and book an appointment online.
Step 2: Arriving to the Appointment
For most types of massage, you can wear whatever you feel like to the appointment. You’ll be “undressing to your comfort level” (<– more on that later!) once in the therapy room. This is true for my practice and all of the massage places I’ve been to in Philadelphia. If you need to wear something specific the practitioner should let you know ahead of time.
Before your first appointment you’ll want to arrive at least 10 minutes early to fill out new client paperwork. A lot of therapists call this an Intake and it outlines your health history and asks about specific conditions in which it would be unsafe for you to get a massage. I also have a consent form that clients sign confirming that they came to see me for massage and understand the risks of letting someone else manipulate soft tissue (muscles, fascia, etc.).
Step 3: Conversation with your massage therapist
After you fill out your paper work, the therapist will take you to the therapy room and ask your reasons for making the appointment. Sometimes when visiting a spa you’ll be directed to your room or a changing area by the receptionist, but generally you’ll have a conversation with your therapist at some point before the session begins.
Clients tell me things like “my lower back hurts” or “I have hip pain when I do…”. I mostly work to help clients with some form of pain, but I can also give a massage to someone who just wants to relax. As a bonus, even if you come to see me for pain, you’ll likely have the added benefit of relaxation. During this time it’s important to fill me or your therapist in on any injuries, past and present that you have. I’ll also give you a brief outline of how the session will go in terms of what body part I’ll be starting with and which direction (face up or face down) I’d like you to start.
Step 4: Getting Undressed
After the therapist leaves the room you’ll get undressed. A phrase commonly used is “undress to your comfort level”. What the heck does that mean?! Well, it means you can undress to the point in which you feel most comfortable; for some people that means leaving their undergarments on and for others it means taking them off. If you don’t feel comfortable undressing at all, that’s ok too – just let your therapist know. It’s important to note that throughout the entire session your private areas will be covered with the sheets. Only the area of the body that the therapist is working on will be uncovered. In the biz we call this draping. (Note: this can differ from country to country, so just ask your therapist or research online what is customary if traveling outside of the US.)
Step 5: Figuring out how to lay on the table
Before your therapist left the room, he or she should have mentioned which direction to face – usually face up or face down. Occasionally, the directions are a bit more elaborate. If you’re confused, just ask for clarification or pick a direction. The therapist will have you adjust if needed.
You’ll notice sheets on the table – position yourself under the top sheet and blanket (if there is one) and above the bottom sheet. I’d say about 95% of my clients start face up and there’s usually a therapeutic reason for this.
Step 6: The Massage
Before your therapist enters the room, he or she should knock and ask if you’re ready (i.e. under the sheet). Please let us know if it’s ok to enter. And, then when you’re all set, we’ll enter. At this point your massage will begin. Throughout your massage you should feel comfortable at all times. You’re allowed to tell your therapist how things feel – too much or too little pressure, tingling, numbness or a hot sensation.
Often during sessions with me, the client plays an active role in the massage by moving their head, arm or leg one way or the other. I include a lot of stretching and active (meaning the client is active) techniques. There will be times when I ask how something feels and provide feedback based on what I’m palpating (<– a.k.a. professional word for examining through touch).
You can feel free to talk or stay quiet – it’s up to you, and we’ll follow your lead unless there’s an important point to make about what we’re palpating.
Step 7: The End of the Massage
Your massage will end after the duration you specified when making the appointment. At the end your therapist should have worked on or around the areas which were troubling you and will close the session and let you know it’s over. Once the therapist leaves and the door closes, take your time getting off of the table as it’s not unusual to be slightly lightheaded or dizzy. Get dressed and either open the door or leave the room and meet your therapist at reception based on his/her instructions.
Step 8: Follow Up
After each session I give details about what I found and provide guidance on the next steps – whether that’s stretching, foam rolling, other forms of self-care or if you should come back in for another session. I’ll also follow up a few days later if it was your first session with an email or phone call to check in. It’s always helpful to be truthful and let me know how your body responded to the massage – it can only make your next session better and more productive! In spas, this generally doesn’t happen as the therapist will probably be getting ready for his or her next session.
Step 8: Paying and Tipping
Your therapist will tell you how many forms of payment are accepted (cash, check and/or credit card), especially if he/she doesn’t take credit cards. I take all forms of payment. You’ll pay the session amount and go on your way! A lot of people ask me if they should tip and the answer is: it depends! I know a lot of therapists who don’t allow tipping. I believe that if you are compelled to tip then go ahead, but I never expect it. At a spa, usually at the front desk, there will be little envelopes that you can put a tip in that the receptionist will give to the therapist.
I hope this clears up some questions about the process of getting a massage. Stay tuned next week for a post on questions I get as a massage therapist!