“How was your massage last week?”
“It was fine, good, actually. But honestly I would have liked it much harder. Can you go deeper today?”
My client was speaking to me from her bed. She had advanced pancreatic cancer. Her pain was deep and constant. She wanted relief, and she wanted heavy massage.
I’ve had this conversation many times. It’s a crossroads moment. My role, my compassion, my ethics all collide in my brain before settling. I breathe a bit before I respond.
Some would say, “Give her whatever she wants.”
Suppose this was your client. She is ill, nearing the end of her life. She is in constant pain. She just asked, perhaps begged, for deep pressure. What do you do?
Students have asked me what to do. Teachers have advised what to do. On Facebook, MTs tell each other what to do.
Kicking around in those discussions is this advice: “At end of life, give the client whatever they want.” Even if that involves heavy pressure. The reasoning goes like this: The client does not have much time left, so it’s time to do what they ask. The usual precautions must not apply in this circumstance.
No. Just no.
I appreciate the feeling that drives this advice. It is a call to ease suffering and pain in difficult circumstances. But “Give them whatever they want” is the wrong message.
This situation calls for more caution, not less. Care and caution are supremely important when working with people at end of life.
I feel strongly about this, for many different ethical, practical, and let’s-grow-up-as-a-profession reasons. Here are a few:
1. “The customer is always right” is not a moral imperative.
Although client-centered care is a good goal in massage therapy, it can sometimes border on the old cliche, “the customer is always right.” People pay their money and they make their choice, and it’s our role as helping professionals to respond to that choice.
When a client is hurting at end of life or during serious illness, we might feel obligated to provide whatever they want. Surely the level of pain trumps all the usual precautions. Surely the client knows best what she needs.
But we are not in the business of granting everyone’s wishes. Client satisfaction is only one of many considerations in our plan of care. And as popular as it is to believe that everyone knows what their body needs in every moment, there are plenty of examples of human behavior that suggest otherwise.
In this situation, one of our professional responsibilities is to zoom out and think carefully, and to question the view that this customer is always right. For reasons listed below, we may have to take on a strong leadership role, ensuring that more caution is used, not less.
In our professional role, the ultimate responsibility for a massage session lies with us, not with our clients.
2. In palliative care, we consider side effects.
“First, do no harm” does not square with “Throw out all precautions.”
Palliative care focuses on relief of pain, anxiety, nausea, and other problems. In these efforts, symptom-relief measures and dosages are carefully balanced against their side effects.
Too much massage can cause side effects, and for massage therapy to be truly part of palliative care, we need to consider dose and minimize those side effects. Here are just a few examples of how heavy-handed massage could make things worse, not better. (Find more good info at the end of this post.)*
• Bruising and pain. Deep or medium pressure could cause bruising, increased pain, anxiety about that pain, or reduced function. Liver compromise is only one factor at end of life can lead to easy bruising and bleeding.
• Blood clot risk. Many, many people at end of life are at elevated risk of DVT. About half of blood clots are asymptomatic—there is no sign of DVT it in the lower extremities where it often begins to form. This is truly chilling, as a massage therapists working with clients at end of life must take care with pressure and joint movement on the lower extremities, avoiding even the appearance of contacting deeper vessels. Why? Loosened, a blood clot can be dangerous or even fatal. Blood clots can also form in other places in people who are seriously ill, so massage therapists do well to educate themselves and consider the risks carefully in each client.
• Fluid balance. End of life conditions can cause precarious fluid balance problems, in the event of kidney, liver, or heart failure. Swelling can be present for a variety of reasons. Some have lymphedema or are at risk of it. Although it is tempting to go at the swollen tissues and try to ease swelling, incorrectly applied massage or heat could make things worse. In most cases, the massage therapist’s intent should be to leave things as they are, not to redistribute fluid from compartment to compartment.
• Bone integrity. In advanced cancer and other conditions, clients might have compromised bone integrity that is not obvious to an observer, and medium-pressure massage or strong joint movement could lead to fracture.
In my client, several of these factors were at play. There were multiple bone metastases and liver function compromise. Her DVT risk was elevated for several different reasons.
These factors are not necessarily intuitively obvious. They take some digging. I understood them from an initial intake of targeted health question, months of working with her, and my own follow-up research. I considered all of these things in my conservative approach.
Had I reacted only to the request for more pressure, and made a snap decision to comply with her wishes, I could easily have over-treated her with massage and caused discomfort or worse. The risk would be heightened if we had just met, and had no history of working together.
The goal of massage for a client at end of life is palliation. As such, massage therapists work within palliative care practices. No matter how you see yourself—as a health care practitioner, as a massage therapist who wants to be accepted as a health care practitioner, or as a provider of an entirely separate service—you are bound to the ethic of doing no harm.
3. This is not just between the therapist and the client.
By its nature, a massage session is private. What happens in the massage session may forever stay in the massage session, especially when a client is near the end of life. This reality might tempt a therapist to go with a client’s request and be less cautious. After all, no one else will know, right? The MT is responsible to only the client?
In my massage therapist role, the client is not the only one to whom I am accountable. There are others in the picture. Even after the client passes, I answer to the client’s family and health care team. If I have stepped out of the usual protocol and done harm, or even if it appears that I have done harm, I answer to everyone in that client’s circle of care.
Some of you might also be accountable to a supervisor, employer, or third-party payer. All of us are accountable to our profession, professional organizations, licensing boards, and providers of liability insurance. We are accountable to each other.
Clearly, there is plenty of accountability, and it extends well beyond the client-therapist relationship.
Suppose a massage therapist provided deep work that seemed to provide relief, but the client’s pain worsened in the hours afterward, possibly due to the injury of delicate structures. Suppose strokes in the wrong direction aggravated or precipitated lymphedema. Suppose a client became nauseated or developed flu like aches, which can follow even a medium pressure massage in a medically frail client. Such a massage can be too stimulating.
These are a few of the countless stories of heavy-handed massage. [And, my beloved research-y friends, I ask you to trust me on this, even without a body of research on adverse effects. Follow me around and listen to the stories I hear and see. Understand why I borrow the precautionary “suggestion of harm” rather than “proof of harm” to guide our work.]
Side effects of over-treatment might set in motion a cascade of medical interventions that are expensive, that no one wanted, and that cause great emotional pain and suffering to the client and client’s loved ones. At end of life, the stakes are especially high.
4. You cannot be sure that your intuition will guide you.
Some therapists rationalize a heavy-handed approach by offering intuition as an ultimate protector of the client. “I won’t hurt them if I follow my intuition.”
The role of intuition in decision making warrants a longer discussion and possibly a whole blog post in itself.
For now, I’ll note that intuition can be fallible. Neither you nor I are endowed with perfect intuition at every moment of our working lives.
My intuition easily fails me when I am short on sleep or food, or long on stress. I make poor decisions sometimes, even when I think I’m following my gut. And that’s just me; massage therapists have told me many stories of following their instincts. Even though I wasn’t there, even though things might have turned out fine, the decisions they describe often fly in the face of common sense, common health care practices, and even common practices in massage therapy.
If your client asks for more pressure and your intuition agrees, I hope there is more in the mix than those two messages. Even though intuition, by itself, is highly prized in massage therapy, intuition is best honored as part of a set of skills, not as a single compass. Nurses and doctors who successfully “go with their gut” typically have years of experience and a whole raft of skills to go with that intuition. Other factors such as good information, communication, and reasoning round out our clinical skills as massage therapists.
Take care not to glorify intuition or rely on it in isolation. A more fully formed clinical decision making process is necessary to get through tricky territory.
5. The MT’s comfort is as important as the client’s comfort
A client’s acute distress is compelling, and necessarily becomes a central focus. It often causes waves of distress in the loved ones surrounding the client. Such a scenario hits us deep in our hearts. We want to roll up our sleeves and go to work on that distress, seeing to as many needs as possible at the expense of our own. We want to do whatever it takes, and if it takes extreme pressure, then we want to provide it. It seems heartless to withhold it.
But it is possible, at once, to offer compassion and set limits. I can deny a request for heavier work without diminishing it.
As the therapist, I am in this picture, too. I have my own needs and responsibilities to honor. I need to sleep well at night, with as few misgivings and mistakes as possible to haunt me. With thousands of massage sessions ahead of me, I don’t have energy to squander on inner conflict or poor decisions. I need the peace of work done safely and well.
In fact, with clearly drawn lines around what I will do, I can step into my work with my fullest heart. My compassion comes easily. It comes through gentle hands rather than heavy ones.
Working gently works for me. I need to make it work for my client.
6. Heroics can be a rush, but don’t rush in.
Many forces come into play in compelling situations such as end of life care. Our old pains and fears about death, our pesky egos. Our history of watching people die, the times we could help and the times we could not. We come by our own pain honestly, but it confuses our decisions sometimes.
Faced with our internal discomfort, we hurry to do something about it. The impulse to give in to a client’s request may arise from our own reaction to our own discomfort. It’s hard to tolerate someone else’s pain and suffering, much less our own pain that bubbles up, so we act quickly to relieve it.
Why else would we hurry? I like to think of myself as someone who can fix problems. (Someone left the door open and let my ego out!) To serve this image of myself, I might be more likely to rush to solutions, bypass the usual precautions, and give deep pressure to someone asking for deep pressure. In a hurry, my judgment can be compromised.
But the client needs help, not heroics. We are practicing massage therapy, not emergency medicine. It’s good to keep some impulses in check. Most situations allow us some time to consider what to do.
The best massage approach includes a thinking pause. Consider tissue stability, and all the factors that might compromise it in certain areas. Think through which organs are under-performing, and how that affects the rest of the body.
And in the off hours? Spend some time in reflection, healing the pain and fear that can interfere with good judgment. Read about end of life, explore the depths. Take part in a hospice volunteer training. Start or join an ongoing conversation about death. Get some help, and get cozier with the reality of where we are all headed, and what we need to heal ourselves along the way.
7. In palliative care, we also work as part of a professional team.
At its best, palliative care is provided by a team of experienced professionals who follow standard practices in symptom relief. Health care providers increase or decrease a dose as carefully as possible. Patient care is layered. Multiple factors are considered.
This is not a time to go rogue. Instead of taking matters into our own hands, instead of riding cowboy-style into a solo effort, massage therapists need to assume a role as part of a team.
It is time to respect the work of the team, and integrate massage therapy as seamlessly as possible into the care of the patient.
How does this look in action? Gentle work. Risk under-treating rather than over-treating. Follow-up and monitor results where possible.
And make good referrals. Ask questions. If an appropriately gentle massage does not help, or even if it does: “This might be a good time to call your doctor and talk with them about the pain.” “When does the hospice nurse visit?” “How about asking your team for more help with this?”
Act as part of a team even if the team doesn’t think you are part of a team. And if there is no team, ask and refer. “Who is helping you with this?” “I have the sense that this could be made a lot easier on you and your family. Who can we call?”
Playing our part in end of life care
When we remember to first, do no harm, to consider dose, intensity, and side effects, we can avoid the pitfalls of over-treatment. With checks on the impulse to overdo it, we can be more helpful.
By using a set of clinical skills, rather than relying on intuition alone, our work is both fully-formed and well-informed.
By honoring our own needs and those of everyone else to whom we are accountable, we take our place in the circle of care.
Massage therapy is poised gain real traction in the world of pain control, supportive care, and end of life. If we go in with a healthy dose of humility rather than an inflated sense of our skills, we will build more bridges and help more people. As team players, we can be more effective. When we learn to communicate with clients and care providers about all of this, we take leadership.
With care and thought, our role in end of life care will earn greater recognition.
How I said “No.”
After the client’s request for more pressure, I sat down beside her. I breathed, and looked her in the eye. I told her I had a good sense of her request and the need she was expressing, and I wanted to address her pain as well as I possibly could.
I listened. I asked her to describe her symptoms more fully, and to point to areas of discomfort. I listened carefully and asked questions. This time, I said, we would pay more attention to the areas of pain.
Then I reviewed the tools I had at hand and told her, from experience, that I thought these measures could help: Setting up comfortable and supportive bolstering. Gently working at tension and stiffness in her muscles. Occasionally asking her to “breathe into the place under my hands.” Long, quiet strokes. Simple, still hands holding the tissues.
My client agreed with the plan a bit halfheartedly, but she said she understood, and I went to work.
An hour later I packed up quietly, in case she was asleep. As I tiptoed out, she called out sleepily to thank me. She had found some relief.
She felt better, and so did I.
*None of the examples, above, provides a full discussion of the signs, symptoms, risks, or possible scenarios to consider at end of life. There is much more to DVT, hepatic failure, bruising, and cancer with bone involvement. Further understanding is essential for MTs working with medical compromised clients. Resources are below, but more are out there, and a MT provides the safest, best care to clients at end of life after a good dredge of the literature and a good face to face training.
Great blogs and trainings on massage at end of life, massage for people who are aging, and massage during serious illness.
- Cates, Lauren. Lighthold: Massage Therapy and End of Life Care
- Puszko, Sharon. Day-Break Geriatric Massage Institute
- Smith, Irene. Everflowing
Walton, Tracy. Selling Gentle Massage to Clients with Cancer. Massage Today, 14(2). February 2014.