If you think about it, relating to massage therapy in terms of body parts is a pretty simplistic view, but without body parts, there is no massage. Clients have body parts that need to be massaged and therapists use varying body parts to perform the massage. This all sounds kind of questionable when explained in this vague way. So let me elaborate.
Let's discuss the most important body parts first. Those would be yours as the client. A massage must always be client focused, thus your body parts are the most important. There's not much to say here except that if you are uncomfortable in any way, you should let your therapist know and try to get them to change what they are doing in order to make things better for you. In Ontario, clients are always draped with a sheet and the only part that is uncovered is the part being worked on. For example, If you are having your back massaged, the sheet is drawn back to about your waist line an tucked in for security and comfort. If your right leg is being focused on next then the back is re-draped and just your right leg is undraped. Easy enough right?
The next point is extremely important. It is so important that I am pretty sure I have addressed it in every post about this topic so far. If you have a body part being massaged and it hurts, you have the right to "refuse, alter or rescind" your consent. In English that means, you can tell your therapist to stop, change their pressure or decide to stop treatment all together. Remember, this is your massage. Sometimes massages can be a bit painful and a good therapist will make sure to check in with you to ensure you can handle the pain. If they don't, do not hesitate to tell them to stop or to change what they are doing. Pain in your parts is not cool. Hmmm, see what I mean about vagueness sounding questionable?
Onto the therapist's parts. There are many different parts of the body that massage therapists can use to accomplish different things during the massage. In your basic Swedish massage, which is the kind taught at most North American schools, the therapist could utilize thumbs, fingertips, palms, knuckles, forearms and elbows. In Asian treatments, such as Thai Yoga Massage, practitioners will use feet as well, but if you are in for a regular ol' massage, feet are not acceptable.
Thumbs are used when a very specific area needs to be targeted. They can also be useful to a therapist if they are trying to work in a small area. The pressure can be quite deep with thumbs as well, but as mentioned, it is for more specific work. Massage therapists are encouraged to use other body parts rather than just thumbs all of the time. Thumbs are not designed to be massaging deeply for eight to ten hours a day. They can tire easily and over use injuries can occur. Thumbs may feel pokey to you, so if they do, ask your therapist to try something else. Chances are they can accomplish what they are doing with a different body part.
Fingertips are used in more general strokes. They are used to work into and out of muscle tissue. Fingertip kneading, as it is called, is much gentler on the therapist's body and will probably feel quite soothing to you if it is performed properly. That said, it does not have the specificity that thumbs do.
Palms are another body part that are more general and used for warming up and cooling down tissue. Palms usually cover more surface area and should feel very relaxing. Palms can be too big for work on certain body parts, depending on the size of the therapist's hands or the client's body part. For example, a therapist probably would not be able to use palm kneading on a small child's arm, but it is a great technique for the back or working on someone's legs.
Knuckles are a lot of fun...well, if you like a lot of deep pressure. :) Knuckles can cover a greater surface area than thumbs, but knuckles are very deep and can hit specific "knotted up" areas as well. Again, it's not as specific as a thumb because with a thumb you can pinpoint one spot. Whereas with knuckles the pressure is deep and may hit more than one area at once. The use of knuckles is not as hard on the therapist's hands as some of the other techniques, such as thumb kneading. The interesting thing with knuckles is that the pressure can be very deep, but the therapist can also take some of the pressure off and the knuckles can feel just firm and soothing. If therapists use knuckles make sure that you are communicating with them and let them know if the pressure is too much.
Forearms are a more broad and general type of knead, but it allows the therapist to use more pressure. It is not as pokey as knuckles can be, but it can feel deeper because a therapist is able to put more of their weight behind the stroke. The shoulder joint allows for a bit more stability than the wrist and this gives the therapist the ability to use more pressure. I have had a few clients feel that if forearms are used with too much pressure, it can feel like their ribs are being squished and they cannot breathe. The use of forearms is good on legs, especially athletic legs.
Let us discuss the pointiness of the human elbow-and for you animals lovers out there, you know animal elbows are just as pointy. Now think of that pointiness and it being used as a massage tool. It can be very useful and effective if done properly, but it can also be extremely painful if it is performed wrong. Elbows are specific and very deep all at the same time. Therapists using elbows on someone's back must have good control in order to make sure that they do not run their elbow over their client's spine. Elbows are good for clients who like a lot of pressure as well as someone who might have a stubborn muscle that does not want to release. With all of that in mind, if your therapist keeps running over your shoulder blades, spine, ribs or any other boney projections, let them know! That goes for any technique really, but especially with elbows. There is a lot of body weight coming from behind those elbows and because they are so pointy, they can be very specific and thus, painful. They are, after all, a very boney body part.
So there you have it; body parts in a nutshell. Since massage is based completely on body parts, I thought you might want to know what parts your therapist could possibly inflict pure joy or pure agony with. :)
Happy Monday and don't forget to check back next Monday for more massage Mumbo-Jumbo. And as I say every week, feel free to leave me comments or questions that you may want answered.