Finding the right Massage Therapists for you can be hard.
There's so many personal factors to consider:
price range or budget
your wellness goals
schedule and availability
potential health risks
And there's so many professional factors to consider too:
the therapeutic approach
their education level
professionalism and presentation
value provided in each session
So the "Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist" series is here to help.
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This article is a detailed tour on the massage table.
The good, the great, and the gross. - something a client may not consider when choosing a massage therapist. But potentially super important in terms of both comfort and safety.
First, like any piece of equipment, there is much variance in massage tables. What they are made out of and how they are made dictates not only your comfort (the squishiness factor, ability to make adjustments) but your safety (weight capacity, ease of sanitation) as well.
We'll start this tour from the surface most level and peel back each layer, discussing the good, the great, and the downright gross - going deeper until we reach the table itself.
Many massage therapists dress their tables with a top blanket. In warmer climates this may be less common. Or in large spas / group practices where minimizing their laundry load is a bigger concern.
Top blankets can be good for aesthetics, making the room more comfy and inviting.
They can be great when used as a functional means to retain heat, keeping a client warmer throughout the session. A heavier or weighted blanket may also serve to reduce anxiety and thus increase relaxation.
Top blankets can be gross when the massage therapist does not have a commitment to launder them after each use. Top blankets may have minimal contact with clients, but frequent laundering is still important to reduce potential cross-contamination and the accumulation of allergens and oils. You deserve a full fresh set of linens without worry of who or what touched that blanket last. Pro tip: If you're often prone to getting chilled on the massage table, let your massage therapist or the receptionist know ahead of time. Most places will have a heavier blanket, or they'll double up, available by request.
Next in the journey through the massage table layers, you'll find sheets. Most commonly a flat sheet and fitted sheet, but sometimes just two flats, no fitted. And in some countries, you may not find sheets at all, as very large towels (think beach sized) are the norm for massage therapy.
Sheets are good at providing a barrier between the client and therapist - an easy way to maintain draping (only uncovering the areas of the body that are currently being massaged). Thus ensuring the protection of modesty and professionalism.
They can be great when care and attention has been invested in quality materials and maintenance. Softer sheets may provide a more comfortable, tactile experience for the client. Natural fibers instead of synthetics may be useful for those with very sensitive skin or allergy considerations.
Sheets can be gross, just like top blankets, when they are not properly laundered after each client.
There's a particularly nasty and unethical practice in some spas called "sheet stacking." The practitioner "stacks" the massage table with however many sheets will be needed for the number of of clients scheduled that day. Six appointments - six sets of sheets stacked on top of each other on the table. As each appointment is completed, the practitioner only removes the top most layer of sheets, and proceeds to the next appointment.
Doesn't matter what the thread count is or what the sheets are made of, sweat and bodily fluids can and will soak through. So with the stacking method, clients are laying down on sheets that have been soiled via the previous set. Ick. If you ever notice sheet stacking happening, demand a full refund, inform the owner/manager, and consider contacting your local health department.
And that ick brings us to the next layer. Arguably, the most important layer of them all.
Most massage tables have many more layers of stuff under the sheets: toppers, warmers, etc. So, we need what's called a barrier.
Good barriers are waterproof, thus sweat-proof, and protect any bodily fluids that soak through the sheets from reaching the deeper layers. And cover the entire top surface of the table. Any pillows should also have a protective barrier - not just a pillowcase.
Great barriers are also hypoallergenic and are made of a material that can withstand being properly sanitized without easily breaking down.
When a barrier is absent, doesn't cover the whole table, or isn't waterproof - that's gross. While sheets and blankets can be laundered after each client, but it's rare that any additional layers beneath the sheets (warmers, toppers, foam) can be laundered after each client. Sometimes these lower layers can't be laundered - in the case of an electric warmer. And sometimes it's not monetarily practical to launder them after each client - because you'd need many duplicates of the same item.
So that's why there needs to be a barrier to protect them from direct contact.
When you're trying out a new massage therapist, take a peak under the corner of the massage table. Look for that protective barrier. Ask about it. It's your massage therapist's responsibility to provide this minimum level of sanitation.
Next, underneath that absolutely required barrier may be a type of topper. Wool, cotton, or memory foam are the most common.
Toppers are good to increase a client's comfort on the table - especially for a longer session duration.
They can be great when working in conjunction with heating pads (next layer we'll cover) to retain additional warmth. That warm can be soothing to the nervous system, fostering further relaxation. Toppers can also provide extra squish for particularly sore joints and muscles.
Toppers can be gross when like mentioned above, there's not an appropriate barrier to keep them safe from daily sweat and cootie accumulation.
And while not necessarily a grossness factor, allergy concerns should also be taken into account. If you have a wool allergy or sensitively, be sure to let the massage therapist or receptionist know.
Many massage therapists place an electric or infrared heating pad somewhere within the massage table's layers.
Heating pads are good at keeping a client comfortable and warm. Especially when clients disrobe, even in a warm temperature room, it can get chilly after a while.
They are additionally great at providing a therapeutic benefit - both aiding in soothing the nervous system and increasing blow flow to muscle tissues. I've long since lost count of how many clients truly love slipping into the comfort of a heated table - even in warmer months, it's a great way to start the massage session.
And once more, they can be gross if not properly protected with a barrier. There are a few models out there that are machine washable, but it is unlikely a massage therapist is going to have multiple pads so they can wash them between appointments.
And now we finally get to the table itself. As with any professional equipment, there's plenty of variances. Size, pad quality, weight capacity, height, and adjust-ability are the major factors that can really impact your massage therapy session.
Good tables will provide clients with firm but comfortable support.
Great tables will offer a variety adjustments. The face cradle should adjust up or down, some may also tilt. Elevation options for the knees or chest are important (alternatively, additional pillows or wedges can be used).
Some table have higher quality frames (solid wood instead of aluminium) to accommodate larger clients. And some have thicker pads to increase comfort.
Gross tables are ones with wear and damage that promotes unsanitary or unsafe conditions. Tables should still be routinely inspected, washed, and any rips, tears, or loose parts should be immediately addressed. The table is one of the most significant equipment investments a massage therapist makes. Although it's not always the case, the quality of the table can be an indicator of the quality of the massage you are about to receive.
ODDS N ENDS
And there we have it, the anatomy and layers of a massage table.
As a closing note, many massage therapists also have a variety of bolsters, props, wedges, or pillows on hand to ensure maximum client comfort. These tools can also be useful in supporting or isolating an injured/compromised area.
Remember, if anything about the massage table or any of its layers is uncomfortable during your therapy session - speak up. No matter if it's the first five minutes or the last five minutes - speak up. There's likely an alternative available and your massage therapist should be happy to help.
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Perfect Massage Therapist Article Series
Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist: Verifying Their License Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist: Massage Tables 101