How to Find the Right Massage Therapist

There’s nothing like a good massage to help alleviate pain, prevent injuries, or just find a rare moment of Zen while lying on a table and remembering how to breathe. That said, a massage is only as good as the person giving it, and it’s always a bummer to put time and money into a crappy experience. If you’re about to make a first appointment, or are considering switching to a different massage therapist, check out these tips.   

Define Your Goals   

It might seem weird to set goals for a service you’re paying for, but knowing exactly what you’re looking for can help you start your search—plus, once the massage is over, you’ll be able to assess whether you got what you came for and whether or not you want to go back.   If you’re looking for relaxation and stress reduction, you have a huge range of massage therapists to choose from… and you might prefer to get a massage in, say, a spa setting rather than a more clinical setting like a chiropractor’s office. If you’re dealing with injuries, have chronic pain, or working on improving your athletic ability, then you’ll want to find a massage therapist who has the training and experience to address exactly that. When you’re getting referrals from friends or looking at bios on websites, you can check to see whether the massage therapist you’re interested in is equipped to help you with whatever it is you want them to work on.   

Figure Out Why You Want Massage   

Why massage and not chiropractic? Did you get a recommendation from a doctor? If so, it’s worth checking to see if any massage therapists are covered by your health insurance. Is this something recommended by your coach? If not, they may have other things you can try ahead of time. Massage is not the answer to everything—sometimes, a chiropractor or physical therapist or someone else entirely is better suited to help you with what you’re working on. Much like defining your goals, knowing your reasoning for seeking out a massage therapist in the first place can help you figure out who to go to, or even whether to go.   

Look For Referrals Or Reviews   

There’s a caveat to this. Sometimes the massage therapist that’s listed in the annual Best Of section of your favorite weekly or who your best friend or teammate swears by just won’t work for you. But if you’ve got similar issues, chances are good that someone who’s either vetted by someone you know or widely well-regarded will work for you, too. And that LMT with dozens of bad reviews is probably worth avoiding.   

Assessing Modalities   

There are a million types of massage these days, and all sorts of continuing education in just about every variation you can imagine. Instead of trying out every single modality, one way to assess these techniques is to see if there’s actually science behind them. Claims about modalities breaking up fascia deserve skepticism, particularly if they’re incredibly painful and you’re not getting results. (Claims about chakras and meridians, while not strictly scientific, probably won’t cause damage—particularly if you’re looking for a massage for relaxation purposes.)   

Dependence   

One other criterion I look at when assessing modalities is whether or not the practitioner fosters dependence on them or not. Clearly, you can’t do self-massage (sorry, guys, foam rolling doesn’t always cut it), but that doesn’t mean that you need to be reliant on a massage therapist every time you feel a little bit of niggling pain. My favorite massage therapists give me homework, whether that’s specific stretches or a neglected area of my body I should foam roll, or a printout of exercises (a la Postural Restoration Institute). You’ll still go back to them, of course, but if you decide not to or want to do some work to make the effects of your last massagestick, having something to do between sessions is invaluable.   

Another example of fostering dependence is what gives some (not all!) chiropractors a bad name: they’ll tell you that you need to come back every week forever. That’s not to say that any massage therapist recommending a specific amount of sessions is a scam artist, and some people—athletes in particular—find regular maintenance incredibly helpful. Being pressured into committing to 10, 20 sessions, though, can be a little sketchy. If you do agree to this, make sure you’re assessing whether there’s been improvement. You may not feel perfect right away, but should feel something shifting (even if it’s sore or hurts more at first).   

Follow-Up Availability   

It’s best to find a massage therapist that returns emails or phone calls and is available for follow-up questions. Say you came in with an injury and the problem was exacerbated—being able to get ahold of them for advice can be incredibly helpful.   

Cost   

Obviously, cost can be a factor—especially if you’re hoping for consistent care. That said, sometimes splurging on a great massage therapist is worth it, even if you go less often. And while most discount massage therapists aren’t exactly high quality (says everyone who’s ever gotten a massage using Groupon), sometimes the most expensive ones aren’t, either. Still, cost is definitely something to factor in. A few gyms offer discounts to members, and some health insurance benefits even offer discounted rates for select massage therapists, which may be worth looking into.   

Resonance   

A lot of people select massage therapists based on the school they graduated from, how long they’ve been in the business, and so forth. As a general rule, chains like Massage Envy that hire recent grads typically aren’t as high-quality as finding massage therapists with years of experience, especially if they specialize in your specific need. But even a massage therapist that looks great on paper, is experienced, and went to a quality massage school could be a bad fit for you. That’s because none of these things matter if you’re going to a massage therapist that you don’t resonate with. And the only way to really find out is to try it, so at some point, you just have to take the plunge.

Yael Grauer is an independent journalist, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blue belt, and managing editor of Performance Menu. Find her at https://www.yaelwrites.com or on Twitter.