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  • Why It’s Important to Know Your Massage Priorities

    Chalkboard with header "Priorities'" followed by list of 3 blank lines

    When your massage therapist asks, “What brings you in?” the absolute least helpful answer is, “Massage.” Funnily enough we’ve managed to work that much out on our own. What we really want to know is what issues are bringing you in. Where do you have pain and/or dysfunction? What areas of your body feel tense? In other words, what are your priorities for today’s massage session.

    There’s no right or wrong answer, but in general your priorities will fall into 1 of 3 main categories: Relaxation, therapy, or a combination of the two.


    Some people poo poo relaxation massage as somehow “less than.” Less than what, I ask? The opposite of relaxation is stress, so this is an important priority.

    Whatever your reason for prioritizing relaxation, don’t let your therapist talk you into doing any type of work you don’t want, no matter what shape your body’s in.

    Yes, your shoulders may feel like cement, your glutes might be hard as a rock (which is not the same thing as having buns of steel, btw), and your back might be so tight someone could bounce a quarter off it. But if what you want and need right now is just some feel good relaxation that’s what you should not only ask for, it’s what you should receive.

    After all, one of the biggest causes of tight muscles is stress. And nothing gets the stress out like a good old fashioned relaxation massage. The timing of a relaxation massage is different to that of therapy session, so it’s important to make this priority clear.


    Therapeutic massage goals generally fall into two, often overlapping, categories: pain relief and improved movement. In general, you’ll be best served by keeping the number of therapeutic priorities to 1 for every 30 minutes of massage time you’ve booked. That means 1 priority for 30 minutes, 2 for 60 minutes, and 3 for 90.

    Pain Relief

    When pain relief is your priority, it’s important to tell your therapist when, where, and how it hurts.

    Does your back hurt? Where? What part of your back hurts? There’s a lot of real estate to cover back there and you’ll have a much more effective massage if you can narrow it down a bit. Does it hurt between your shoulder blades? Underneath one of your shoulder blades? Is it your low back? Your midback? All of these areas contain different muscles and therefore will have different issues that are possibly causing or contributing to your pain.

    When do you have pain? Which movements or positions make your pain worse? Which ones relieve your pain? Again, knowing the answers to these questions will help you refine your priorities, or at least help refine the areas your massage therapist addresses during your session. After all, if your shoulder hurts when you raise your arm, that’s an entirely different set of tissues involved than if your shoulder hurts when you reach behind your back.

    Do you have more than one area that hurts? Whether you have 2 or 20 painful areas, you’ll need to answer these questions for each in order to get the best possible outcome from your massage.

    Improved Movement

    This is the other type of therapeutic goal you might want to prioritize in your massage. Just as with pain relief, the more information your can give your therapist, the better.

    It’s not enough to tell your therapist that you can’t move your head very far, it’s important to tell them which direction you have difficulty moving it in. Not being able to check your blind spot while driving involves a very different set of muscles than not being able to look down at the floor.

    Not only that, it’s important to let them know what type of result you’re prioritizing. If you’re having trouble reaching behind you, it’s important to know how far you want to be able to move. Do want to be able to put your coat on with ease, grab your purse off the back seat of the car, or do you want to be able to touch the area between your shoulder blades so you can care for your new back tattoo? Each of those outcomes is called a functional goals.

    Do you have more than one area that isn’t moving fully? You’ll need to determine what your functional goal is for each. Remember, priorities are about more than just the body part you want worked on. They’re also about the end result you want.

    Therapy and Relaxation

    I’m not gonna lie, this category is the most popular category among my clients. Heck, most of the time it’s the category my own priorities fall into when I get a massage as well.

    This category is so popular because it combines the best of both worlds. The relaxation part helps relieve the stress that’s causing some of your muscle tension and that definitely makes the therapy part easier and more comfortable.

    Putting it All Together

    One thing to keep in mind when determining your priorities is how they fit into the overall massage session. Timing the session can be a bit tricky for your therapist if your functional goal(s) conflicts with the amount of time you’re either willing to allot to your priority areas or the amount of time you want to assure is spent on a non-priority area. It may not be possible to fully alleviate your headache if you also want your therapist to spend 10 minutes on your feet and 20 minutes on your low back and still massage the rest of your body as well.

    Once you know all the areas that hurt or don’t have full range of motion and have determined how and when they hurt, how and which ways they don’t move well, as well as how stressed you are, you need to determine which ones are most important to you. If you had to pick 1, 2, or 3 which ones would they be? Next time they might be different. By narrowing down your priorities to 1 for every 30 minutes of session time, not only are you ensuring that your therapist will have enough time to actually address each issue in an adequate fashion, you’re ensuring a greater chance of having fewer issues to choose from next time.