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Massage craze: Hands-on therapy attracting more patients
(CNN) -- Deep tissue, reflexology, shiatsu, acupressure, Swedish and trigger point. The names read like a bizarre list of wrestling moves or maybe the menu at a sushi restaurant.
But they're really a "hit list" for the different options in massage therapy -- a growing trend among patients open to alternative forms of health care or for those just looking to feel better.
"Massage is tremendously popular right now, and this year we've had a huge response," said LeighAn Jessen, the director of retail sales for the Utah College of Massage Therapy, which oversees five massage clinics located in three Southwestern states. The organization has been selling gift certificates for massage treatment during the past several years, and this year thousands of the coupons were ordered in the weeks and months leading up to the holiday season, she said.
"I'm like a lot of people who know the benefits of massage therapy," Jessen told CNN a few days before Christmas. Jessen herself bought some of the college's massage certificates as gifts, because "I want to share massage with everybody I know."
These days, people are turning to massage as a form of alternative therapy -- like chiropractic care, yoga and others -- to find a cure for what ails them. In fact, twice as many Americans report receiving one or more massages from a massage therapist in the past year (16 percent) as did in 1997 (8 percent), according to the American Massage Therapy Association, or AMTA.
In a survey of 500 men and 500 women conducted back in July, 21 percent of respondents said they expect to get a massage from a massage therapist in the coming year to treat an ailment or to feel better.
Insurers, employers take notice
Eager to tap into a booming market, the health insurance industry is taking note. Several managed care health plans throughout the country now cover prescribed massage therapy, including Prudential Insurance, Oxford Health Plans, Great-West Life & Annuity and Kaiser Permanente, to name a few.
Others companies could soon follow suit, according to the Health Insurance Association of America. Spokesman Richard Coorsh said that while certain benefits are mandated by law, many companies also "shape these packages in response to the demands of the marketplace."
A growing number of businesses and organizations also offer massage in the workplace, including the U.S. Department of Justice. Officials at Boeing and Reebok have reported that worker headaches, back strain, and fatigue have all fallen since the companies started bringing in massage therapists to treat their workforces, according to the AMTA.
What can you expect out of massage?
The average massage therapy session lasts about an hour and comes with a base price of $45-$60. Practitioners usually ask patients to remove only as much clothing as they feel comfortable with before lying down on a padded massage table. A cloth cover or draped sheet is placed over the person, with only the part being massaged at that moment exposed to the open air. Talking during a massage is completely optional, experts said, and depends upon what patients ask for at the time. "Some clients need to talk. Some need silence," wrote Elliot Greene, a past president of the AMTA and now an essayist for the association's informational Web site: www.amtamassage.org.
Wanted: massage health professional
The best way to find a massage therapist is to get a referral from a friend who gets the therapy, a health professional who is knowledgeable about forms of complementary and alternative care, or by contacting the AMTA toll-free at 888-843-2682. A state-by-state directory is available at the group's online site.
Because only 29 states regulate massage as an industry, experts said it is important that people seeking a therapist try to find a qualified professional. Graduates from schools endorsed by the Commission for Massage Training Accreditation (COMTA) normally should fit the bill. Also, the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork keeps tabs on many U.S. massage practitioners.
Some of the best therapists offer a range of massage techniques, including the Swedish massage system of long strokes and kneading on the more superficial layers of human muscle. There's also the deep tissue approach, which relies upon finger pressure on the concentrated areas of deep layers of muscle tissue.
Specialty services are also becoming popular, including hot stone massage with river rocks and therapeutic oils or a technique called "cranio-sacral" massage, which deals with "finding and correcting cerebral and spinal imbalances or blockages that may cause sensory, motor or intellectual dysfunction," the AMTA explains.
Asian theories of healing also come into play, as shiatsu massage and acupressure aim to treat the body's invisible "energy flow" and ease physical discomfort.
Healing power of touch
"It's all about the power of touch, which the medical profession is starting to learn has amazing healing properties," said Dr. Brad Stuart, the medical director for California-based Sutter Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice, a non-profit group focused on patients nearing death.
A recent study of people who were hospitalized because of life-threatening blood clots after hip replacement surgery found that even mechanical massage can cut post-op clot risks. The data, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at pneumatic compression -- done by external machines that massage the legs -- and found that some patients given the massage were only 30 percent as likely to be re-admitted for symptomatic clotting as patients who did not receive the therapy.
Experts said almost anyone is a candidate for massage therapy, as long as the therapist is knowledgeable and reputable. Even infants seem to benefit: Studies by the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute have found that preemies massaged three times a day for as few as five days consistently fare better than equally frail babies who don't get massages. Full-term infants and older babies also benefit from massage, researchers said.
Perhaps the most striking trend is the partnership between hospitals and massage therapists for patient treatment -- a modern-day mix of traditional medicine and alternative "touch-based" health care, according to Neil Jesuele, an American Hospital Association executive who heads up a forum devoted to educating doctors about complimentary patient treatments.
The number of community hospitals offering such services as massage therapy and herbal and vitamin supplements jumped by one third from 1998 to 1999, with more than 11 percent of hospitals offering the alternative treatments, according to a hospital association survey.
"We are seeing a dramatic move toward complementary and alternative medicine because patients are asking for it," Jesuele said.
Coverage for alternative treatments rises, and trend has yet to peak
Massage Information Center
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