Medical Conditions in Massage Practice, Part III: Interviewing for Medications

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS
May 29, 2009

Medical Conditions in Massage Practice, Part III: Interviewing for Medications

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS
May 29, 2009

Thanks to better training and texts, massage therapists tell me their knowledge of contraindications is growing. But many still report gaps in knowing how to interview for contraindications and how to apply the answers in the session. This series of articles has offered some suggestions for closing those gaps. In Part I, I wrote about my own intake attempts early in my career and how my interview changed over time. I also offered one important interview question regarding client activity level and types of activities with examples of the information it can bring to light for the massage session. In Part II, we added the question "Are you in a physician's care?" with follow-up questions. This question alerts the therapist to medical conditions that might pose contraindications.

Now let's turn to a third all-purpose intake question, which follows the second question nicely: "Are you taking any medications?" Along with a few follow-up questions, this question yields useful information during an intake. Unfortunately, the information in this territory can seem cryptic: drug names are notoriously foreign-sounding and long (amoxicillin, amitryptiline), sound similar (celexa, celebrex, cialis), and many of us misspell them. The good news is that massage therapists can use information about meds without having to go to pharmacy school. By asking a few follow-up questions for each medication and doing a little investigation, we can determine which massage contraindications or modifications to use. Below are some follow-up questions with some examples of how the MT might use the answers.

How do you spell that?

Correct spelling may come from the client or a little more investigation. Correct spelling is key to looking up a medication - perhaps not in the moment, but at some point for your learning. If the client can't provide the correct spelling ("It's those little yellow pills" or "The ones I use for thyroid"), it's still possible to get the needed information. But at some point determine the closest spelling possible. Search engines on the Internet can be quite forgiving with less than perfect spelling. For example, suppose you have a client with Crohn's disease on a medication that neither of you can spell correctly. If you type in "methatrexate" or even "methatrexate Crohn's disease," Google will return a kind message to you: "Did you mean methotrexate?" There are numerous sites about medications. One I use is, which lists consumer information alphabetically by drug. Many drugs also have their own Web sites, including or These sites have general information about the drug, including why it's prescribed and side effects.

What is the medication for? What is it designed to do?

This may unearth a medical condition to ask more about, especially if the condition affects tissue or organ function. Bringing it to light, the MT may need to follow contraindications for the condition itself. Suppose a client lists medications for hypertension and heart disease. The medication may not resolve the problem entirely but may just control it, and the disease is still present. Hypertension or heart disease could require modifications in client position, pressure used on the legs in case of a risk of blood clots (DVT), and other modifications. If the condition itself puts someone at risk for stroke, the massage therapist should not use pressure near the carotid artery or on any pulse points. If the client is taking ibuprofen or aspirin for the pain of an unstable injury, treat the area as unstable and avoid stretching or other strong passive movement in that area, and refer the client to his/her physician. Stronger pain medications, such as narcotics, interfere with perception and the ability to give the MT feedback about pressure. The practitioner should only use gentle pressure and joint movements to avoid causing injury.

Self-medication is vital information that comes from asking this question. Upon finding out that a client self-medicates for musculoskeletal pain, sleeplessness, headaches, etc., the massage therapist should suggest (sometimes strongly) for the client to see a physician or other health care provider for diagnosis and additional help.

Is the medication effective?

This question gets at over- or under-treatment, and there is some overlap with the question above. If a medication is not effective in reducing blood pressure, for example, treat the client as if he/she has high blood pressure and investigate massage contraindications accordingly.1 If a medication is good at preventing blood clots it will probably cause easy bruising, so lighten the massage pressure. Coumadin, a blood-thinner (anticoagulant), is one such medication. It is commonly presented as a massage therapy contraindication, but only one element of massage - pressure - is contraindicated. Use follow-up questions to determine how much pressure is too much. Some people experience mild bruising as the medication carries out its task; others have more severe problems as the right dose is determined over time. Other elements of massage therapy, including stroking, kneading, joint movement, etc., may be perfectly acceptable as long as they are carried out with gentle pressure.

Are there any side-effects or complications of the medication?

If so, other massage adaptations may be necessary for each side-effect or complication. This question has some overlap with the question above. If pain medication is so strong that it causes drowsiness in a client, he/she should not receive a vigorous massage. If it makes the client urinate frequently, he/she may need to get up during the session. If a drug (such as prednisone or other steroid medication) causes a change in fluid balance and produces swelling, massage should not attempt to shift fluids dramatically from tissue to vessels, or along vessels. A gentle session is in order. Some practitioners have advanced training and specialization in stronger work with pathologies, injuries, swelling, and scars, but most basic therapists should follow an important rule of thumb: a body adapting to strong medicine does not need the additional burden of adapting to a strong massage. More information on massage and medications is available from trainings and textbooks.2

Looking back at the questions above, note that some overlap can occur in the information gleaned. This is as it should be. The best interviews give the client several ways to respond to the most vital information. If the client doesn't mention "easy bruising" after the third question, perhaps he or she will recall it after the fourth question. Avoid too many redundant questions that prolong an interview, but give clients more than one chance to recall and mention key information.

This series has provided three all-purpose questions for the interview:

  1. What is your activity level and what are the types of activities you engage in?
  2. Are you currently (or recently) in the care of a physician?
  3. Are you taking any medications?

Each question can spark longer conversation, and it takes skill to move the interview along in the right direction - toward the massage table for a safe, effective, thoughtful massage. Interviews are longer for some clients, shorter for others. In most cases, ideal intake interviews are brief but also allow for a thorough, efficient transfer of information. At times these goals seem at cross-purposes, but with experience interviewing becomes easier. Thorough interviews lead to safe treatment for the increasing number of people seeking massage therapy. In addition, a good interview enriches each massage session and the therapeutic relationship with each client.


  1. See Werner, Ruth. A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology (3rd ed). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2005 and other pathology texts to additional contraindications.
  2. See Persad, Randal. Massage Therapy and Medications: General Treatment Principles. Toronto: Curties-Overzet Publications, 2001. Also see Wible, Jean. Pharmacology for Massage Therapy. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2005. Also note the training available at Day Break Geriatric Massage Institute.

Editor's Note: Parts I and II of this series appeared in the June and July issues, respectively. See and