How To Be A Good Massage Client (#5 in an occasional series)

It’s Not A Stroke

Every now and then I have to stop myself from flapping a towel vigorously at people who have read way too many articles about the Warning Signals Of Everything without actually carrying away much of the information in their excitable noodles. They are often likable, appealing people, but they are worriers, and the modern medical model, which catastrophizes everything to the point of telling people to consult their doctor before, for instance, doing any exercise, has not done them any service.

“My fingers have been tingling off and on lately,” they will tell me. “Do you think I’m having a stroke?” They will wave the hand about and wiggle the fingers — seriously, this is a repeat occurrence — while continuing to babble about how they wonder if it might mean they’re having a stroke or going to have a stroke or had one at some point in the past, so breathlessly that I practically have to shove a pillow over their faces to tell them that hands get pins and needles from spastic forearm muscles, contracted upper chests, tight necks, locked collarbone joints and possibly compressed discs in the brachial plexus region, but that I have never, ever heard of a stroke manifesting as a radiculopathy (the fancy term) that comes and goes.

And if they’re worried about a stroke, why are they on my table? Why aren’t they in their doctor’s office? The urgent care clinic? The ER? And why won’t they shut up and stop gesticulating long enough for me to get to grips with the real culprits?

Sometimes it is a pain in their leg or maybe ass and they are terribly afraid it is some monster called Sciatica which everyone seems to assume is incurable, or a ruptured disc, and not the consequence of a perfectly obvious cross country drive or house move. But mostly it is the hand and arm stroke thing.

I did miss cancer once but my cantankerous colleague Sister Age caught it. We alternated doing massage on a guy with excruciating mid back pain that had been through all the diagnostics, X rays, MRI’s, you name it. He reeked of tobacco: hair, pores, garments, breath — he was a cab driver and I can’t think what the inside of his ride must have been like — and Sister Age said she couldn’t imagine how anyone that smoked that much didn’t have cancer somewhere so she noodged him into getting another MRI and sure enough there was a spot in the spinal column that had migrated from his lung.

Maybe worried people in their doctor’s offices should also visit their massage therapists, I don’t know.

If you suddenly lose part of your visual field or can’t speak clearly or can’t move one side of your body for Chrissake call 911 or 999 or whatever it is in your part of the world, or make a fuss till someone calls for you, but if your arm has been getting pins and needles off and on for a couple of weeks just let me find the gumball I know will be there in your bicep or clavicular pec and stop talking long enough for me to see if I can make it relax.


10 thoughts on “How To Be A Good Massage Client (#5 in an occasional series)

  1. I’m not sure whether this tendency indicates more the failure of usual medical care, or a flattering confidence in your opinion, or a surge of hypochondria in the general population, or maybe all three.

  2. human beings seem to inhabit either end of the scale when it comes to medical things, but never the useful middle. So, they either worry that pins and needles is a stroke and yet do nothing other than annoy their massage therapist about it or they ignore lumps and chest pains and avoid the doctor’s surgery completely, perhaps hoping that whatever it is (and god forbid they should go and actually find out) will just ‘clear up’.

  3. I’ve never asked my masseuse if I’ve had a stroke; I may have accused her of sorcery when she fixed a trigger point in my hip flexor, but that was out of gratitude.

  4. I used to do shit like that all the time with my doctor students and they always indulged me and my silly fears. Presumably because there were no towels to flap.

    Since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer I don’t worry anymore about other possible health issues. But I can understand those who wonder about tinglings and random pain, and I also understand why they wouldn’t go to a doctor. Because I think deep down they know – or they hope! – that it isn’t anything serious. They just need some reassurance.

    The important thing is that giving them your opinion as a massage therapist wouldn’t leave you open to a lawsuit for handing out medical advice. Would it?

    • I do try to be conscientious about offering opinions, but if there’s anything I hate it’s a person who’s so afraid of being sued that they won’t answer a straightforward question. Doctors are actually the worst about that. They would rather panic a well person than risk being accused of a misstatement by someone who turns out to have a serious problem. I don’t know what’s so difficult about “90% of the time there is nothing to worry about here but we’ll do the test.”

      Fortunately, the questions I get asked can usually receive a graphic answer, since if a massage clears up the pain or tingling, it’s obviously not a deep seated organic problem, and there are quick and dirty indicators for the few things I should not massage, like a blood clot. And I keep a shelf of medical manuals that allow me to look things up the same way a doctor would if he needed a cheat-sheet outside his area of specialty. Often it helps me tell people what they should ask their doctor to look at.

      The one advantage I have, as far as sizing up whether someone has a medical problem that a doctor should investigate, is that I’m around a person for a full hour while they tell me what is hurting or going wrong. Half way through that hour something might come up that puts a whole different light on it. Try finding a doctor who can spend that kind of time.

  5. Sure this tingling isn’t sign of a stroke? It only happens when my arms have been hanging down for a couple hours and yeah, actually, I have been lifting lately and it makes my arms puff out a little more than they used to but no, no, it has to be a stroke. My grandfather had that once. Runs in the family. Either that or, what did that woman say? I have a radiculopathy! I’m doomed!

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