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Massage Today
March, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 03

When Is It Safe to Treat a Patient Taking Antibiotics?

By Charlotte Michael Versagi, LMT, NCTMB

Patients often arrive at a massage therapist's doorstep after a recent hospital release, recovering from bronchitis or another "bug." During intake, we discover they are taking some form of an antibiotic. Upon hearing these words from a client or patient, a red flag needs to pop into the therapist's consciousness. This isn't always a contraindication, but ingesting antibiotics presents certain precautions and demands certain questions are answered before proceeding with the massage treatment.

To clarify up front, in this article, massage treatment is defined as standard, full-body, Swedish-style massage consisting of effleurage, petrissage, some range of motion, perhaps some tapotement, etc. We are not referring to lymphatic drainage, energy work or other forms of bodywork. Those modalities are performed after advanced training and affect the body slightly or significantly different than normal Swedish massage.

First, what is an antibiotic? Antibacterial agents usually are called antibiotics. These medications cause irreversible and lethal damage to a bacterial pathogen or at least create bacteriostasis, inhibiting bacterial growth. You've heard of the common families of antibiotics: the penicillins, tetracyclines, sulfonamides and cephalosporins.

Here are some questions to ask when your client informs you they are on antibiotics. Why are they taking the medication? When did they start taking it? Are they suffering from an infection? Is the infection systemic or local? Do they presently have a fever? If so, is it spiking or is it low-grade? And at this point, you may be thinking to yourself, "What's the difference between inflammation and infection?" and "What effect will my massage have, based on the answers my client just gave me?" Our concern, as always, is safe treatment.

Let's clarify some definitions before discussing your treatment. An infection, according to Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 28th Edition, is an invasion of the body with organisms that have the potential to cause disease. Our own Ruth Werner tells us inflammation is a tissue response to the threat of bodily injury or invasion by antigens. The response is controlled by chemical, cellular and vascular functions. It's a chain of events; a reaction of injured tissue to defend and protect the body from invasion. The aim is to get rid of the pathogen, prevent the spread into the body (a massage therapist's primary concern) and prepare the injured area for healing.

Now prepare yourself for a generalization here, but it will help you with your treatment decision. Antibiotics most often are given to fight infection, something that is systemic or carries the threat of becoming systemic (although some infections can be quite local). Steroids and some other medications often are administered for inflammations; a problem we normally think of as local, yet sometimes is systemic.

You remember the cardinal signs of local inflammation, right? Redness, heat, swelling, pain and sometimes, lost function. The point is to help you intelligently understand what you are treating before you proceed. Does your client suffer from a local inflammation/infection (e.g. infected tooth socket after wisdom tooth removal) or are they taking antibiotics prophylactically before a procedure? Have they been diagnosed with bronchitis and started antibiotics three days ago? Do they have a fever of unknown origin and the doctor is simply experimenting with an antibiotic to try to allay symptoms?

Now let's put two and two together. You learned in massage school that one of the primary effects of massage is an increase in circulation, right? OK, if a one-hour massage is going to increase circulation, you must be as sure as you can about exactly what you are sending through that body. Are you potentially spreading infection or are you helping with waste removal and lymph flow to assist the body's fight toward health? The effects of massage are vast and wonderful; just keep reminding yourself that one of those effects is vascular. With infection and inflammation, you are dealing with the body's vascular (and immune) response.

As for the answer to the question of whether to treat a client, according to Werner, acute inflammation is a contraindication for circulatory massage. But massage may be appropriate for subacute conditions. (Think of a twisted and swollen ankle, for example. No massage therapist in their right mind would massage locally, but effleurage proximal to the injury, as well as massaging the rest of the body, would be completely appropriate.)

The mantra I learned in massage school was: "An antibiotic has to be taken for three full days for the patient to achieve a blood level (of antibiotic) before a massage can be safely given." Although this is generally sound advice, Jane Brown, director of the 1,000-hour massage program at Carnegie Institute in Troy, Mich., reminds us, "All antibiotics have different saturation levels in the blood; so although the three-day rule holds most of the time, you never really know which antibiotic has reached its height of effectiveness and when."

Jen Green, a naturopathic doctor and researcher practicing in Shelby Township, Mich., offers massage therapists a holistic view of treating patients who are taking antibiotics: "Antibiotics generally help control the bacterial population. But tell your massage therapists that the antibiotics are not doing the whole job - the immune system is still working. It needs a boost to work effectively and massage gives it that boost. I'd agree with waiting a couple of days (from the onset of taking the medication) to begin massage but after that, it would help the patients to stimulate the immune system by increasing circulation." Dr. Green continues, "Antibiotics, too, have a bacteriostatic effect; they can keep the bacteria from growing - but the body has to move. Increased blood and lymph flow helps get the problem out of the system."

It is probably safe to treat your patients after they have been taking antibiotics for two or three days and are manifesting none of the cardinal signs of heat, fever, swelling or pain. Remember, ask all the right questions, determine in your mind exactly what effect your increasing circulation will have on the body, and then proceed with intelligence and compassion.

Charlotte Michael Versagi is a medical journalist, national speaker and educational director of the School of Oncology/Hospital Massage in the Beaumont Hospital system in Michigan. Her private practice focuses on oncology patients.


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