In January of this year, after 25 years of working at a massage table, I was forced to retire. I had surgery on my left thumb (ouch) because I wore the bone off doing massage. I tease people and tell them I literally worked my fingers to the bone – because that is exactly what I did.
Occupational hazard? Yes, mostly, with a little auto-immune stuff thrown in for “fun”. But overall this is one that could have been avoided, I think, if I would have been more aware of my own body as the tool I was using it as.
Looking back now, I can tell you what I did wrong and at what time that set-me-up for career altering hand-surgery. Listen carefully, so that you do not repeat what I did.
History of Injury
In March of 2014, I injured the 3rd finger on my right hand. It was dislocated when I tripped over something and fell on my hand with all my body weight. I had to stop working for a year while I tried everything to heal that finger. I was unsuccessful and finally gave in to surgery to repair torn ligaments surrounding the joint.
I healed after that surgery, but my right hand was never, nor will ever, be the same. It took some time, but I worked back up to 15-18 massages a week. What I didn’t realize until 3 1/2 years later, because of significant pain in my left thumb, was just how much I had been compensating with my left hand for my right hand.
Reality After Surgery
This should be your #1 priority as a massage therapist wanting longevity in this career. It DOES matter.
I had tried to do as I was instructed and constantly reminded myself to approach the body at correct angles with my body and keep my body “lined up” with my arms to the surface of the muscle I was working on.
After the hand surgery on the right, I found that the strength and integrity never completely returned. The automatic response to the demand I placed on my hands to work was to shift 75% of my body weight and angle to my left hand. Because of that shift, I leaned to left and the angle of my left hand tilted to be more comfortable – putting most of my pressure for both hands into my left thumb and wrist.
While this was a natural reaction and it allowed me to continue to work, it had devastating consequences later on.
The problem was I didn’t really feel it coming on. I felt fine. I was completing my work – actually doing more massages than I ever had before. My left shoulder, arm and thumb were more tired than my right, but I didn’t worry about it. I needed to continue to work and this was just how it was going to be for me to meet that demand.
One day, something in my left thumb “popped” and after that, it was no longer stable.
That was in August of 2017. I remember it so clearly because it was so painful. But I just kept working. My family had had a loss with my father dying, I was moving homes, painting rooms, and moving my office into my home. AND I just plain didn’t take the time to take care of myself.
By January, my thumb was swollen to triple the size of my other thumb and hurt all the time. I was actually getting sick to my stomach when I used that thumb to work on clients.
No matter what I tried to do with angles or joints, my right hand could not pick up the slack for the left hand. I was actually to the point that neither hand was working and I was attempting to continue to be a massage therapist. (Try doing neck work with your forearms or pinkies). I felt crippled in my ability to massage and my hands just wouldn’t work for me anymore. It was such a frightening thing to ask your hands to do something and they couldn’t.
When I finally went to see a hand specialist about my thumb it was too late. The “pop” in August had been major ligaments holding my thumb onto my hand. They had become weakened – with each incorrectly, non-stacked joint applied massage I was doing.
Without the stabilization of those ligaments the thumb was grinding around on the saddle joint. Within 5 months, it had worn off the saddle joint and my thumb, literally, was falling off my wrist (graphic image below).
The rest is medical history and I can no longer do the one thing I loved and studied so hard to be accomplished at.
What could I have done differently?
Listen carefully to what I have to say if you want to avoid what I did and continue to do massage for years.
The #1 thing I should have done was adapted the way I did massage to meet the needs of what my hands were telling me.
The #2 thing I should have done was honor myself and make decisions that were best for me – not my clients.
I should have also been proactive and adjusted for prevention – with or without the signs my body was giving me. I should have used my head and knowledge of pressure and stacking joints and thought about the long-term effects.
I believe I could have continued to do massage (less of course) for the rest of my life if I would have realized that since my joints could no longer stack correctly, that I really needed to be diligent in making adjustments to save my hands. I work in preventative medicine, but I didn’t apply my own theory to myself!
Looking back there are many ways I could have done this:
I could and should have cut down on the number of massages I was doing. Period.
This is a hard one because the impact was a financial one – or so I thought at the time. Not being able to work at all seems to have had a much larger impact now.
I could have figured out how to distribute the pressure of the massage stroke more evenly with different tools (fist, knuckles, right and left).
I could have been more diligent and kept practicing hand position and kept everything straight with no angles.
I could have changed the way I massage from deeper pressure to something my hands could tolerate. This may have changed my clientele some, but I don’t think it would have impacted me in the way I was scared that it would.
I could have sought medical help sooner and had an idea of what was going on to be more proactive and SAVE my hands from further damage.
After talking with those therapists that have been this career for 30 or more years, they did these things I just talked about to be able to continue doing massage – naturally. They listened to their bodies and hands. They thought ahead. And they practiced what they preached. They didn’t let money or clients dictate their body wisdom.
The Future is Wide Open!
Hind sight so they say is 20/20. I realize that more than ever now and my hope is that you can follow a wise old Chinese proverb that goes something like this:
“A wise man is one who learns from another man’s mistakes”
On the bright side of all this, I am a full-time teacher now. A dream I have had for some time, but I believe I could have achieved this dream without all the pain, suffering, and grief. It was a matter of choosing and allowing myself to shift from one career to the other naturally. To honor myself and put myself first, instead of feeling like I couldn’t let my clients down. That’s a hard one when you work so hard to build up a clientele and then you can’t continue to serve them.
Because of my experience, I am also looking into ways to make the hands-on work that I teach much more user friendly to the therapist. Perhaps that was the lesson I was to learn all along. I am a very firm believer in being open to the lesson and staying positive. The outcome is never what you think it will be – its better!
I will leave you with THE ONE THING I learned over-all about preserving your hands for the long-term. And not for just doing massage – but also for doing normal, every-day things as you get older.
Simply listen to your hands. Do what they say they can do, regardless of what you fear or think, and you will be fine.