Massage therapy gaining acceptance

Potential medical benefits and regulation by the state increase the visibility and popularity of massages
Sunday, December 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:07 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Massage therapy has become a popular alternative not just for relaxation and pampering but also as a health treatment. Whether they choose a room scented by incense with soothing music playing in the background or a traditional medical setting, more people are turning to massage as an alternative treatment.

“There’s been a general growth and awareness about the value of massage therapy,” said Diane La Mar, owner of Columbia Massage Care.

A 2004 study by the American Massage Therapy Association found that 21 percent of those polled had received a massage in the previous 12 months — a 13-point jump since 1997. The survey also found that massage was second only to medication as the form of pain therapy that gave the greatest relief.

According to the AMTA, massage therapy can help relieve muscle tension and stiffness, improve circulation, reduce blood pressure, improve posture and strengthen the immune system.

“It is more than just relaxing and unwinding,” said Natascha Jones of Kelani Salon and Day Spa. “It’s a health option.”

While most of his clients seek massage on their own and not on a doctor’s recommendation, the medical community is becoming more accepting of massage as a legitimate therapy, said Esteban Ruvalcaba, a massage therapist in Columbia for 21 years.

“There is increasing pressure on mainstream medicine to look at massage therapy as part of treatment options,” said Jeff Rioux, a massage therapist with Boone Hospital’s Wellaware. But there’s still a long road ahead for massage therapy to gain complete acceptance in the medical community, he said.

What’s helping it along that road is increased government supervision. Missouri is one of 33 states that regulates the profession. Massage therapists in Missouri must complete 500 hours of supervised instruction and pass a certification exam.

Ruvalcaba was part of the committee that wrote the law, which went into effect in 1999. In the past five years, he has seen 20 massage schools open in Missouri.

“There were no schools when I started,” he said.

The licensing requirements have kept Mirra Greenway’s classes full at the Massage Therapy Institute of Missouri in downtown Columbia. The growing popularity of massage prompted Greenway, who is the institute’s dean of students and co-founder, to open more course sections and double the enrollment in January, from eight to 16.

“I get calls from day spa owners, and I don’t have anyone to send them,” she said. Greenway said that roughly half of her students end up working at day spas; the other half gravitate toward the medical field.

The most common types of massage are Swedish and deep tissue massage. Doug Henley, a massage therapist at Alternative Health Therapies, said the purpose of a Swedish massage is relaxation, while deep tissue is used to help relieve pain or a muscle problem.

Clinical massage therapists often focus on deep tissue massage to help people with a specific problem such as carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic back pain or migraines.

“Massage is a less invasive way of treating conditions,” Ruvalcaba said.

Columbia’s two hospital systems have recognized the growing interest and have massage therapists on staff. MU Health Care has a licensed massage therapist who works out of The Health Connection at the Parkade Center.

Boone Hospital added massage therapy to its Wellaware program eight years ago and has two massage therapists on staff. The therapists work at Broadway Medical Plaza across from the hospital and at Lenoir Retirement Community. They also perform inpatient massages, paid for with grant money, to provide comfort for palliative care patients.

Most massage services are paid out-of-pocket by clients. An hour of treatment averages about $60. AMTA estimates that $4 billion to $6 billion is spent by consumers on massage therapy annually.

Some massage therapists in Columbia will provide a receipt for the client to file with an insurance company but won’t directly bill insurance companies. Two exceptions are chiropractic offices and physical therapists who can bill insurance directly.

Ruvalcaba said a mandate for insurance coverage of massage therapy, such as current law in Washington state, is inevitable. While coverage would open up the door to people who couldn’t afford massage therapy, it’s not always a good thing, he said.

“Insurance will be able to limit treatment even if a patient needs more,” he said. “Coverage will open up possibilities but also limits.”

The growing interest in massage therapy has spurred an increase in the number of day spas in Columbia. Spa owners said massage therapy is the most popular treatment, but they also offer a full menu of spa services, including facials and body wraps.

Helen Warren, a high school and junior high art teacher, looks forward to her regular massages at Salon Adair and Spa. For the past four months she has been going for a massage nearly every two weeks; she calls it her self-care program.

“I don’t take enough time for myself,” she said. “I do this to try to stay relaxed.”

In the last year Salon Adair and Spa, Southside Salon and Spa and La Bonne Vie have opened in Columbia. Kelani Salon and Day Spa recently expanded to increase its spa services. Wellspring Therapeutic Massage Center opened three years ago, and Sedona Spa and Therapeutic Massage opened in 2003.

Joy Toler, owner of Salon Adair and Spa, said the spa has some massage regulars, but often people only come in once a year to redeem a massage gift certificate.

“The spa side is what I was told would be hard to get going,” she said. “But we’ve had a good response. We are not completely booked, but we are doing well.”

Kathryn Pope, owner of Wellspring, said she continues to see new customers come in as massage is talked about more. About 30 percent of those new customers become regulars, she said.

“People are starting to realize the importance of self-nurturing,” said Loralynn Sullivan, owner of La Bonne Vie. “If you take care of yourself, you can take better care of the people around you.”

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