What to Expect during a Professional Massage Therapy Session

Part 3 of How to Receive a Professional Massage
Part 1 Part 2

Getting a soothing, full body massage is supposed to be a relaxing experience, but if you've never enjoyed massage therapy before, the session can be rather confusing and stressful. Knowing what to expect can make all the difference.

These bits of advice, gathered from professional massage therapists, will help you to know how to prepare for and get a massage and what to expect during a session

Ready... Set...
Book your massage in advance if you can. This is a courtesy the therapist or clinic, allowing them to schedule other appointments more efficiently. If you have selected a facility such as a spa or massage clinic, where there are several therapists, let the receptionist know if you have any special needs—some clients are more comfortable selecting a therapist of their own gender, or one who specializes in deep tissue massage, for example.

Once your appointment is booked, by all means show up for it—please don't cancel at the last minute or, worse yet, fail to show up without explanation ('no show'). This is simply a matter of good manners—doing so inconveniences the therapist and is a very rude thing to do to a person. Massage therapists are trying to make a living, and cancellations or no-shows are money out of their pockets.

Punctuality is paramount—allow yourself plenty of time to arrive early for your session. This is particularly crucial if your therapist or clinic of choice is very busy. If you arrive late you may very well find that your hotly-anticipated massage session has gone to another, more punctual client. If you are early, you may even wind up getting an extra five or ten minutes from your therapist. On your first session with a therapist or facility, it is advisable to arrive as much as 15 minutes early, as you will need to fill out an information card listing any health concerns, contact information, and legal disclaimers.

Good to Meet you. If You'll Accompany me Back to the Suite, we can get Started.
Ready for your massage? Excellent! Here are a few practical tips which will make your massage session more enjoyable.

  • Drink plenty of water on the day of your massage. Supple, well-hydrated muscles and tissues relax more readily and thoroughly.
  • Please make sure you are reasonably clean—it isn't usually necessary to shower immediately before a massage unless you have been exercising or working outside, but it would be very impolite to show up sweaty or dirty.
  • That said, leave the nice clothing at home, there is no need for cosmetics, and don't worry about styling your hair (it will probably get mussed in the process of a full body massage anyway).
  • If you normally moisturize your skin, skip that step today. Moisturizer may interfere with the massage lotion, and most massage lotions or oils will do a wonderful job of moisturizing your skin.
  • You are going to be relaxing for the next hour or two, so you may want to pay a visit to the bathroom before starting your session. Having to dress, go to the bathroom, undress, and re-start the session will kill the mood and take away precious time when you could be enjoying your massage.
  • The most important thing, and I can not stress this point emphatically enough: do not wear any fragrance. Please remember that you will be in a (presumably) small space with another human being for an hour (or more). If you douse on the cologne, perfume, or scented body splash, you risk choking your therapist and possibly yourself as well. Even heavily scented anti-perspirants or hair products are usually a bad idea, as they will seem a lot more cloying during your time in the massage suite. Some therapists may have allergic reactions to certain products and I have actually heard of therapists refusing to work on clients with whom they had unpleasant experiences of this kind in the past.
  • Turn off the cell phone if you possibly can. This is a time for you to relax and enjoy therapeutic work. If you can put the world away for an hour or two, I strongly suggest you do so.

A full body massage session
After you are alone in the massage room, you'll want to undress and get onto the massage table (remember: it is a table, please don't refer to it as a "bed"). We say "undress to your level of comfort." Most clients strip to the skin, but a few leave underwear on (particularly if they do not know the therapist). A few women may leave their bras on, but it is an uncommon practice (and makes for a bit of difficulty in massaging back muscles).

Some varieties of massage, such as sports massage or Thai Yoga massage, have the client dressed in loose-fitting clothing (such as shorts and sports bra or tank top). Your therapist can advise you as to whether this is appropriate.

Every therapist has her or his favourite routine—some begin by working on the head, some begin on the feet (I personally start by working on the back and finish with the head). Your therapist will advise you if you should get on the table face up or face down. The therapist will leave the room to give you privacy. Undress and get on the table, under the sheets and/or blankets. If you are supposed to be face down, fit your face into the padded face cradle. The therapist will return and you can begin your session.

There is no substitute for communication—even the most experienced massage therapist cannot tell exactly what feels best for you, and every client is different—it is up to you to tell them what feels best. While your therapist works, your feedback will be greatly appreciated. Feel free to ask questions or request different sorts of techniques as the therapist works.

Some clients will prefer to chat during their massage session, others would prefer to be absolutely silent. Some therapists would prefer clients of one type or the other. If you don't feel like talking during your massage, feel free to tell your therapist—you are the one paying for the session, your therapist should adapt to your needs.

Caveat Emptor!
A word on discomfort or pain: There are a lot of misconceptions about firm pressure massage work; many people fear that it is very painful. In fact, only the most intensive deep tissue or trigger point work will cause pain under ordinary circumstances. If something hurts a little bit, let your therapist know whether it feels like a 'good' or therapeutic-seeming discomfort or a really sharp pain—the therapist can discuss the difference with you and help you figure out exactly what your tolerances are, but massage does not have to be uncomfortable to be therapeutic.

During a full-body massage, you will typically be covered with a sheet and/or a blanket—only the area which is currently being worked on will be undraped, the sheet or blanket will be securely tucked in around limbs or torso. This is known as draping, it is done to ensure your comfort and privacy.

Massage therapists are not, as a general rule, trained physicians, chiropractors, or psychological therapists—they can not treat or diagnose any medical or psychiatric condition. So, for goodness' sake, please do not ask your therapist for such advice or treatment...and if your therapist claims to be able to treat a disease, do spinal adjustments, or offer any kind of a diagnosis, it is time to find another massage therapist. While mercifully uncommon, this sort of thing does actually happen,. I once met a therapist who made the irresponsible claim that she could cure cancer with herbal concoctions and massage!

Can't Touch This!
Let's talk for a second about "bad touches." Massage therapy will usually not include a woman's breasts or the gluteal or lap area of either sex. The gluteal (rear end, kiester, booty) area is a sort of exception in many cases. In most cases it is legal to perform gluteal massage, but the therapist will almost always ask first (we tend to be somewhat euphemistic, in a strong effort not to sound sexual, preferring mild terms like "lower back and hip area" to more customary, but less professional, terms such as "butt" or "ass"). As the area is very important to the functioning of the lower back and legs, massage there is often a good idea. If you have underpants on, most therapists will either avoid the area, or massage over the sheets.

In most places, it is legal for a therapist to massage the breast area of a woman, although specific signoff may be required. This is not a commonly-practiced form of massage. Please refer to my breast massage article for more information on that subject.

After the Session
At the end of your massage, the therapist will leave the room and it will be time for you to face the world once again. Get up slowly from the table. Massage therapy can make a person feel light-headed or giddy, this feeling is normal. Do not hurry, take your time, and if you feel you need a moment after you are dressed, your therapist should have a place where you can sit quietly before leaving.

Most massage therapists accept gratuities, even depend on them. You should determine if tipping is appropriate before you pay. Your therapist can tell you. Massage therapy is not a terribly lucrative profession, and most therapists rely on gratuities to make ends meet. Typical tip is 10-25% of the price of the service.

Most therapists will tell you to drink plenty of water for the next day or two after your massage session. This is a point that is hard to overstate; an extraordinary amount of water is not necessary, just 50-75 ounces (1.5-2.25 litres) or so (soda, coffee, tea, beer—these don't count). The common line about this is that the water flushes toxins out of your system. This is not proven, but it seems likely that massage may clear metabolic wastes and the like from the spaces around and between muscles. You want that stuff out of there, so water is a good way to get rid of it. It is also important to be well-hydrated after a massage, and this may be key to why extra water is so crucial. There are a few other theories which involve electrolyte balance, but they are as yet unproven.

I have experimented with this (using myself as a guinea pig, of course) and I must say that drinking enough water seems to be quite important. This goes double if you are getting a lot of deep muscle work. The times I have not had enough water, I felt lethargic and achy the next day ("flu-ish" is the common way of expressing it). A single half litre bottle of water, sipped during the evening, can make all the difference!

Additionally, stretching and heat (separately or together) can help loosen up muscles, improve circulation, and make the results of your massage experience even more dramatic. A warm bath with a couple of cups of Epsom salts will help detoxify the body and keep your muscles feeling as comfortable as they did immediately after your massage.

When people ask "How much massage should I get?" the canonical answer is "one hour per month," but, in truth, that can vary widely. If you are very active, or just very sore, you may require massage as often as is feasible—some clients get one massage per week, particularly clients with chronic discomfort, insomnia, ADHD, or injury rehabilitation. Unfortunately, this can get pretty pricey. Discuss options with your favourite therapist or clinic, develop a regimen for yourself.

I personally get a massage every month, more often if I can afford the money and (especially) the time to do so. I also take an Epsom salt bath every week. As age 40 recedes into the mists of time, I find this is less of a luxury and more of a necessity.

After your full body session, your muscles will feel more supple, you will be relaxed and your mood will probably be wonderful. On the other hand, your hair will probably be mussed, your face may have lines from the face cradle cover and you will likely look as if you just woke up. You will feel terrific, but you will likely need some grooming!

Information for this article was provided by a dozen or so wonderful therapists I interviewed, and from six or so years of professional experience as a massage therapist.

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