Massage as Language

As you can probably tell, I love words. I love writing, describing, imagining with pen and paper (or with computer keys and a text program). But there are some situations – and I’ll be the first to admit this – where words are completely inadequate, where the English language isn’t capable of grasping the concepts or conveying the reality.

One of those situations is massage.

While words are not my first job when giving massages (that would be, well, giving the massages), it’s important that I keep good chart notes about my clients. This is definitely important when you share clients between practitioners (like at the clinic I work in), but it’s also important so that you can keep track of an individual’s progress over time.

In the chart notes, I have to describe the client’s muscles. Describe what they’re like, describe what I feel… but that’s easier said than done. Muscles can be tight or loose, but those are just umbrella terms. I need specifics. I can say that a tight muscle feels ropey or tender, bumpy or crunchy, but all of those words verge on the metaphorical. I’m a health care practitioner, not a poet.

So… what’s the solution?

Think of massage as a language. A non-verbal language – one that speaks through touch. A good massage therapist can feel tension and will know where the problem areas are without any verbal cues. A good massage therapist can actually communicate with the muscles.

Massage as a language is a great concept, but you still can’t fill out a chart without words. Therapists knows these words – hypertoned muscles, adhesions, knots, etc – because we learned them in school. But we only learned them abstractly; that is, we learned the words in isolation. No one ever gave us a muscle to feel and told us what adjective went with it. That was for us to figure out on our own.

Naturally, every massage therapist has different experiences and interacts with different muscles. Everyone finds different examples to define the words they learned, so each therapist winds up with his or her own vocabulary. We all use the same words, but the words might mean different things to each of us. Well, that’s just… great.

To throw some psychology into the mix and make matters worse, there’s a study I read once about how putting our memories into words (that is, writing about them) actually changes what we remember. The mind no longer remembers the original situation; it remembers what had been written about it. Details get lost – a situation that couldn’t be described perfectly suddenly becomes that imperfect description.

Massage is one of those situations that can never be recorded exactly right. If I note in my chart that a client’s hamstring felt ropey or that the knots in her back were at a moderate-plus level, I’m at risk of forgetting the nuances, the details that I’m aware of on a non-verbal level. I can’t write down my intuitions.

And of course, this isn’t to say that I’d remember things better if I don’t write anything down. I probably wouldn’t remember much at all. And therein lie the problem.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a good solution for this whole mess. Words are necessary for communication, whether to file an insurance claim or to remind yourself what you worked on during the client’s last session. They’re important, sure, but they aren’t the only tool. When it comes to massage, one has to rely on any number of cues – verbal, non-verbal; scientific, intuitive – to get the complete picture. Words are just a small piece of a much larger puzzle.

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