Tools of the Trade: A Brief Overview of Mechanical Massage Therapy
Massage therapy seems to most people strictly a manual activity. The laying of expert hands on tired, achy, and strained muscles immediately symbolizes massage therapy, and, indeed, handwork is essential to most forms of treatment. Concurrent with many of these manually-applied therapies, however, is a range of treatments involving the use of machines designed to deliver pressure, friction, and percussion that human hands cannot. Massages involving these machines are often described as “mechanical massages”; despite their name, mechanical massages are not really a different modality of massage therapy but a different way to perform massage therapy with a little help from technology.
Perhaps the most common kinds of machines used by therapists are an array of hand-held vibrators that deliver varying degrees of contact depending on the vibrating mechanism. The gyratory vibrating machine, a common fixture in many massage centers and spas, can be either a stand-alone handheld machine or attached to an upright stand housing its electrical components. The handheld portion of this vibrator, also known as a head, houses a rotary electric engine that moves in circular, upward, and downward motions, delivering medium to heavy percussion to the client. Often, the heads of a gyratory vibrating machine are interchangeable. The therapist can, for example, choose a soft sponge head to deliver soothing effluerage or can opt to use a head with firm rubber spikes to soften up even the tightest of muscles. The use of mechanical energy allows the therapist to prolong massage sessions without experiencing as much fatigue and, because the vibrator’s heads are interchangeable, gives the therapist more ways to respond to the client’s unique needs.
Like the gyratory vibrating machine, the percussion vibration is another handheld machine with interchangeable heads which serve different purposes. But unlike the gyratory vibration machine, the internal motor of the percussion device causes the head to move only upwards and downwards in a drumming motion. Generally, percussion vibrations deliver less pressure with each tap and thus are suitable for sensitive areas such as the face and neck. The heads of most models include knobs that allow the therapist to control the intensity of the vibration.
An audio-sonic vibration machine delivers even less intense force to the client. An electromagnet vibrates within the head as an electrical current passes through it, producing a constant humming noise (hence the name). Audio-sonic vibration machines are especially encouraged for sensitive patients or patients with certain contraindications.
Other kinds of treatments usually precede and succeed the use of machines, depending on the needs of the client. It is rare for a therapist to administer mechanical massage without some kind of initial manual massage. Therapists will often prep the client’s body with massage oil or talcum powder so that they can slide the vibrator along the body more easily and reduce the friction between the head and the skin. Clients may also undergo heat treatments before and after a massage. Heating lamps, another kind of technology commonly employed by therapists, can be either non-luminous (non-light producing) infrared lamps or luminous radiant lamps. The heat from these lamps encourages vasodilation––the widening of blood vessels––and thereby promotes blood circulation and decreases blood pressure. Radiant heat can also provide a sense of relief and comfort for the client.
The proximal benefits of these machines are similar to those of manual massage. The percussion of these machines on the muscles encourages blood flow and reoxygenation of muscle groups. Increased blood flow to and from the muscles also speeds up that area’s metabolic rate and expedites the removal of metabolic waste. Mechanical massage can also relieve various kinds of pain. Note, however, that not everyone should receive a mechanical massage. Contraindications include clients with skin disease, bruises, varicose veins, pregnancy, acute spinal problems, tendency of headaches/migraines, extremely thin/bony clients, and elderly clients whose body might not respond well to the intensity of the vibration.
Be sure that the therapist performing a mechanical massage maintains a high level of cleanliness and care. Vibration machine equipment should be kept as sterile as possible since they regularly contact the flesh of many clients. Heating lamps should never be placed directly above the client’s body (lest they fall and cause serious injury) and should be kept an appropriate distance to avoid burns; usually lamps are placed from one and a half to three feet from the client’s body. With these cautions and contraindications in mind, a mechanical message can be a wonderful and rewarding supplement to the familiar manual massage.
Article submitted by:
The Massage Center