By: Mark Liskey
Don’t tell my brother-in-law that he’s partially responsible for extending my massage career because I’ll never hear the end of it. By the way, he’s not a medical doctor, massage coach or physical therapist. He’s a race car driver who turned 60. At the time, my wife, Lisa, and I threw him a party at the racetrack. Long story short, it’s rainy and windy; the grill’s tarp on the back of the pickup is flapping. I pull off on the side of the highway, fix the tarp and slam the tailgate shut, but because the handle is wet, my hand slips and I severely jam my middle finger.
At this point, I have two problems: One, I use my middle knuckle a lot during a massage, and, two, I have a big massage day lined up the next day. My first thought is to cancel my clients, but I was in the process of revamping my massage style of 20+ years because of pain conditions that were triggered in the massage room. So instead of cancelling, I decide to work around the injury.
Work “Around”, Not “Through”
You may have noticed that I said “work around” and not “work through”. “Work through” is part of a mindset that can be helpful if you’re running a marathon and trying to set a PR, but if you’re planning on doing massage for a long time, “working through” will catch up to you.
If you’re naturally a work through-er, like me, then you’ll need overwhelming evidence that you shouldn’t work through something. So immediately after I injured my finger, I started to amass a case against using my injured finger in a massage. I pressed my middle finger down onto the dashboard of the truck. Oh yeah, that’s hurts. Then I did my best to bend my swollen finger, and pressed the middle knuckle into the dashboard. Okay, you’re an idiot! Yet, I wasn’t done. Throughout the party, I tested my finger until my finger felt worse than when I injured it. Case closed. I wasn’t going to be able to use the knuckle of my middle finger to massage the next day. I needed a workaround.
The good news was that I was already experimenting with workarounds for my shoulders and elbows so my brain was pretty good at finding alternative ways to massage. For my middle finger injury, two workarounds immediately came to mind: Use the middle finger of my non-dominant hand and substitute a massage tool for my injured knuckle.
Let’s first talk about using the middle finger of my non-dominant hand, also known as becoming ambidextrous. I know this is challenging, but think about all the workarounds that you could have once you get competent with your non-dominant x, y or z. Not only could you break out the non-dominant body part when you’re injured, you could use it to pre-empt fatigue or prevent an overuse issue with your dominant body part.
How do you become ambidextrous? You practice with the non-dominant body part—ideally before it’s a necessity. In the case with injured right finger, I had a little bit of practice with my left middle knuckle, but I was if-y. So I went to option two—substitute with a massage tool.
Massage Tool to the Rescue
My jammed finger hurt when it was bent or straight. It needed to be taken out of the massage entirely for the next day, but it did a lot of things. It was a presser, palpator, glider, and when I was holding a massage tool it was also a stabilizer. My thumbs could pick up the slack with palpation, but gliding, pressing and stabilizing needed massage tool workarounds.
Since gilding with palms was out, I tried gliding with a fist and a massage tool. It was a homerun. The pressure was broad like palms and it didn’t bother my injured finger.
Notice that my right hand, the hand with the injured finger, is relaxed on the massage tool. If I were to tighten my grip, my finger would rebel. Pinning the tool between my hand and the tissue I’m working on along with the hand next to the massage tool, keeps the tool stable so that I don’t have to grip the handle.
How about pressing? For pressing I used my middle finger when doing supine neck work. So I decided to take supine neck-work out of my massage for a few days while my finger healed. I replaced it with prone neck-work, and that’s when I broke out my secret weapon.
Long Stem T-Bar
This is a massage tool my friend, Matt Johnson (massage therapist and tool maker), made for me before my injury. So I had some reps in with it. I call this tool a long-stem T-bar.
When I hold it, the stem sticks out beyond my middle finger. It’s easy to see how the tool could be a substitute for my middle finger; however, if I held the massage tool like a pencil, it would put pressure on my middle finger.
In order that I didn’t press the massage stem with my middle finger, I varied my hold so that other fingers contacted the stem. And I did most of the stabilization through pinning and bracing the massage tool with the hand not holding the massage tool.
Another plus for me was that I was ambidextrous with massage tools. Wait, what?! Yeah, I know it sounds weird that I was ambidextrous with massage tools, but not my knuckles. There’s a simple explanation: Early on when I didn’t know how to hold a massage tool without my hurting hand, I learned how to relieve my dominant hand by using my non-dominant hand.
As I got into the first massage of the day with my injured finger, I discovered another way to massage without using my middle finger. Habitually I kept placing my hands down as if I were going to use my injured knuckle. When that happened I found myself experimenting with ways to keep my injured finger out of harm’s way. Soon I was making all sorts of different finger combinations, like a thumb on a thumb combination pictured below.
Don’t Wait Until You Get Injured
There’s no doubt that it can be scary when you get injured. But if you can work around an injury there’s potential for multiple payoffs. For one, you’ll become more versatile with under-used ways to massage. You’ll also discover new ways to massage. And, finally, you’re going to feel good that you got the job done without compromising the quality of your work—while being injured.
That said, you ultimately don’t want to rely on chance (or your brother-in-law) to discover new ways to massage. Take the ideas that I talked about in this article—ambidexterity, hand combinations and massage tools—and start to practice them now. If you need some help, I’m here firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Liskey is a massage therapist of 30 years, massage business owner, CE teacher/provider, blogger, writer, and co-producer and co-host of the International Take Care of You School Event, an annual self-care conference for massage therapists. Recently he has written The Pain-Free Massage Therapist, a DIY, “body-mechanics strategies and techniques” book for eliminating pain in the massage room and extending massage careers. You can access free, instructional body-mechanics videos at his website www.painfreemassagetherapist.com.