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RNs Combine Nursing Skills and Therapeutic Massage to Promote Healing


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By Debra Wood, RN, NurseZone contributor

As more people turn to massage for its documented health benefits, a growing number of nurse massage therapists are combining the modality with their nursing acumen to promote healing.

"We’re on a high, sharp upward trend, because people are interested in prevention and something other than prescription drugs and surgery," said licensed massage therapist Cam Spencer, RN, of Charleston, South Carolina. Spencer is president of the National Association of Nurse Massage Therapists.

Recent studies have shown massage offers therapeutic benefits to people suffering from back pain, stress, lyphemema and post-op coronary artery bypass graft pain. A 2001 American Massage Therapy Association survey found 60 percent of Americans seek massage for medical reasons.

"There’s an endorphin release and an increase in leukocytes; therefore the immune system is enhanced," said licensed massage therapist Edie Williams, RN, of Tallahassee, Florida. "The relaxation response decreases muscle tension and pain perception."

Williams worked as a public health and school nurse for many years before becoming a massage therapist in 1995. Many physicians and chiropractors refer patients to her.

"I have people come because I am a nurse," she said. "They feel that credential adds to my knowledge base."

Massage therapy offers nurses the opportunity to practice independently. Training involves 500 or 800 hours of post-graduate education and practical experience in massage and bodywork. Some states recognize massage as within a nurse’s scope of practice, but others do not.

Association Vice President and certified massage therapist Jamie Listebarger, RN, of Bemidji, Minnesota, recently received a grant to implement a two-step proposal to obtain such recognition and incorporate massage into existing hospice programs. Once accepted as within the scope of practice, massage therapy would be reimbursable.

"Nurses are in the best position to work with hospice clients, because they understand physiological changes, psychosocial issues, and death and dying," Listebarger said. "I think it can improve quality of life for hospice patients and their families."

Listebarger has focused her massage practice on helping patients resolve pain-related problems. Clients range from teens with sports injuries to older adults with ambulation difficulties. Her background includes community and hospice nursing.

A nursing license allows a massage therapist to provide extra services. Teaching how to perform stretching exercises, change dietary habits, reduce stress and apply heat and cold becomes a natural extension of a massage session.

Some nurses, such as licensed massage therapist Judy Epstein, RN, of Tucson, Arizona, take additional, related coursework. The former rehabilitation nurse also holds neuromuscular therapy, healing touch and coach certification and provides life enrichment coaching.

"We look at the life rather than just the body—asking what is going on in life that needs healing," she explained. "I’m becoming an advocate for wellness and an educator and promoter for holistic living."

Massage therapy appeals to nurses who enjoy patient teaching.

"I’m putting the power back in their lives and the responsibility for health and wellness in their lap, because that’s the only time people really change," Spencer said.

What’s more, she said massage offers her the opportunity for a different type of practice, which draws on her maturity, 35 years of nursing and other life experiences.

"[Massage therapy] gives you autonomy, and you’re able to share what you’ve learned all those years but at a nicer pace," Spencer said. "It’s one-on-one, uninterrupted time with the patient, with the rewards of seeing people excited about getting better."

Most of Spencer’s clientele are at least 50 years old and suffering from musculoskeletal or other chronic conditions. Spencer completes an assessment on each patient, then develops a plan of care.

One 90-year-old woman makes regular visits to improve her circulation and respiratory status and scheduled additional sessions prior to surgery to boost her immune status. Massage helps Parkinson’s patients improve muscle tone and relieves muscle tightness associated with chronic arthritis and other conditions. Dentists refer TMJ patients to release trigger points due to teeth grinding. And expectant mothers seek relief from pregnancy’s discomforts.

Licensed massage therapist Heidi Chavers, RN, of Tallahassee, Florida, specializes in prenatal and postpartum massage and teaching parents how to perform infant massage. The 20-year veteran of labor and delivery added massage therapy to her skill set four years ago. She also teaches childbirth classes for a physician’s group, is a lactation consultant, and regularly gives massages at a retirement community.

"All of the skills dovetail perfectly," Chavers said. "Massage complements everything I do. In our high-tech orientation to medicine, it helps to balance that with high touch."

Infant massage enhances parental bonding. Chavers said babies share the same basic need for comfort, touch and compassion as adults.

"I love what I do; there’s nothing more gratifying," said Chavers, who finds similarities performing massage on clients at both ends of the age spectrum. "It’s so fascinating how our bodies and our minds and every experience are interconnected to touch."

For more information about massage therapy and nursing and the upcoming National Conference on Nurse Massage Therapy, visit the Web site of the National Association of Nurse Massage Therapists or call (800)262-4017.

June 14, 2002 © 2002. NurseZone.com. All Rights Reserved.