Archive for July, 2010

This article appeared in the most recent issue of the New Yorker. It is written by a surgeon and details his own discovery of the purpose and value of hospice care. More importantly, he situates his personal journey within a context of the greater health care system and discovers that, paradoxically, patients on hospice often live longer than patients who do not forego “curative” treatment.

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The language we use to introduce massage to elderly and sick patients can make a tremendous difference in the ability of those patients to accept the treatment being offered.

“Massage therapy” is the standard clinical term for hands-on manipulation of muscles for the purpose of symptom relief and/or stress reduction. Massage therapists frequently go to great lengths to define our work as “therapy,” especially as we strive for professional recognition within the medical field. We avoid terms like “back rub” or “foot rub” because these are not clinical terms.┬áIt’s easy to assume that everyone knows the standard definition of massage therapy, but that is not always the case.

At hospice one day I entered a patient’s room and offered her massage therapy. Her reply: “Massage…yes! Therapy…no!” To her, “therapy” meant physical therapy. PT can often be strenuous and painful, and certainly it’s too much for many people as they approach the end of life.

Sometimes even the word “massage” has negative connotations. At baseline, massage is usually somewhat vigorous and can even feel painful. Someone who is sick might assume that the massage I am offering will be similar to one they may have had in the past.

Many massage therapists have fought hard for the privilege of working in the medical field and have done so through the introduction of clinical language. However, the fight for legitimacy is secondary to the mission of properly serving our patients. When working with special populations it’s important to be open to alternative language. When the word “massage” is too scary, I find myself offering a “back rub” or “foot rub” instead.

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