Burn Scar Massage
Burn Scar Massage

Burn Scar Massage: How Trained Massage Therapists Can Make a Real Difference for Burn Survivors

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 12, 2023

Burn Scar Massage: How Trained Massage Therapists Can Make a Real Difference for Burn Survivors

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 12, 2023

Burn injuries are particularly painful with a lengthy, unpleasant healing and recovery process. Burn scar massage can play an important role in the recovery process for survivors. But not many people know what burn scar massage is or the benefits it can provide survivors.

Massage Today spoke with Jen Hartley, a massage therapist who works with burn survivors, as well as a burn survivor herself. She found scar massage to be very helpful in her own recovery, and now spends time discussing the importance of burn scar massage from both a physical and mental perspective with clients who are burn survivors.

Hartley’s burn injury occurred when she was a young child, causing 2nd-4th degree burns from her waist down. In 2003, she attended Augusta School of Massage with the goal of combining massage therapy and burn care. In a blog post detailing her journey, Hartley describes how she “wanted to reintegrate safe, painless touch back into the lives of burn survivors … and show that we didn’t have to fear touch.”

Today, she is the co-owner of Handle With Care Scar Massage Therapy.

Amber Wilcox is the marketing lead for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, as well as a burn survivor. Before her injury, Wilcox had no knowledge of scar massage. After her injury, however, scar massage quickly became part of her regular self-care routine.

Both Jen and Amber describe their burn scar experiences below.

Jen Hartley

What was your introduction to scar massage?

Jen Hartley: I remember my mom always saying that we were supposed to “massage” my scar tissue per doctors’ orders, but I was never given any instructions on how to do it. She was more afraid of hurting me or damaging the scar tissue than she was of the benefits of massage. I would just slather lotion on myself as a child to hydrate the scars but never tried to do any “massages.” When I was in massage school, I read an article in a massage magazine about a woman named Julie Spiegel and the work she was doing with burn survivors at something called Phoenix World Burn Congress (I had never heard of it), and I managed to get sponsored to attend that very year. I rushed to find Julie and had to introduce myself. We’ve been great friends ever since!

How does scar massage benefit survivors?

JH: Physically, I can see scar tissue softening as I’m working on it. I feel it become more pliable. Increased pliability means decreased tightness for a week or two. Clients report a decrease in itching and pain, and since I used to have the same issues, I know what a big deal that is to a survivor. With some survivors, including myself, a decrease in pain means fewer prescription drugs we need to take. Massage is an additional tool in pain management. It is the same with the emotional side. Decreased anxiety equals decreased need for anti-anxiety meds. Massage therapy also helps survivors become less afraid of touch. Survivors attribute touch to pain because everything that happens to us while we are in the burn unit is painful. We begin to think that anyone touching us outside of the burn unit will also be painful. We can show that there are options for our burn survivors that don’t include pain. Massage can also help bond together the survivor and their caregiver/family member. It helps the survivor to not feel like a “monster” or “untouchable,” while allowing the family member to participate as part of the recovery process in a more hands-on way.

When did you decide to make a career out of scar massage to help other burn survivors?

JH: In 2003 I was starting life over. I had worked as a cashier, I stocked shelves at Sears, I had been a child abuse counselor for two years, and I had even worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for many years. Then, one day, I was on my burn unit in Augusta, GA, and one of my favorite nurses was hunched over, charting. I walked over and started rubbing her shoulders as a random act of kindness, and she told me that I had great hands and asked if I had ever considered becoming a massage therapist. The idea was born. My local massage school was literally two blocks from the JMS Burn Center. I believed it was fate. I became the very first recipient of the Flicker of Hope Burn Foundation Scholarship, which paid my tuition in full. I knew then that I could combine what I learned in massage school with what I knew as a lifetime burn survivor to help others.

As someone providing this service for others, as well as a burn survivor yourself, how does working with burn survivors affect you?

JH: Working with other survivors gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment. It shows me that God had a higher purpose for my accident than I had known. I could learn from my own pain growing up as a childhood burn survivor and adapt my massage sessions to the same thing. It allows me to pour my heart into my survivors. It has turned pain into purpose. I’m able to use my skill to work with someone who has been intentionally set on fire by a spouse and give them 60 minutes of not having to be afraid of anything. I can create a safe space for them. That fulfills my soul.

See Also: Massage & Scar Tissue

Amber Wilcox

Can you speak about your burn injury?

Amber Wilcox: My burn injury occurred in April of 2020 at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a scary time for the world and being in the hospital during that time was also very frightening, not to mention I’d have very limited interaction with anyone for a year or more. I was burned by a hot caramel explosion when a glass of hot caramel exploded in my hands and on both legs. I had 20% of my body burned with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. I required two skin graft surgeries and seven laser reconstruction surgeries to date.

Tell me a little bit about your experience with scar massage. What drew you to it initially?

AW: I knew nothing about scar massage before my burn injury other than a virtual session about it that I watched with Jen and Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. I decided to go to physical therapy instead of receiving home health care for my scars, and it was at that time that I learned that my physical therapist had experience with scar massage techniques. My therapist advised that it could help with a variety of things. She would spend a good portion of our time together just massaging me before we dove into actual movement.

Did you have any expectations? How did it line up with those expectations?

AW: I did not have expectations, but I was also thrilled to learn that she wanted to teach my husband the techniques, as it was easier for him to perform the massage on me and he was willing to spend time doing it. We made it a daily routine. Every evening before bed he would perform scar massage. I was rather skeptical when it came to massage, but I truly believe today that if it weren’t for the massage I wouldn’t have healed so well.

How did scar massage benefit you, both short-term and long-term?

AW: My husband and I did scar massage consistently for an entire year postinjury. I also used my physical therapist for three to six months. I now also visit a massage therapist once a month. For me, scar massage helped with so many things. Specifically, it made my skin pliable. I also was able to get used to touch in that area that was so extremely sensitive to me. I also found it as a time to relax and just breathe while we focused on healing. My husband and I made it a “ritual” of sorts. It was an opportunity to look at the scars and notice progress. I believe that massage was a contributing factor to putting my nerves at ease, and further, the reason I can still do splits in yoga class!

There are obviously physical benefits of scar massage, but does it benefit in mental/emotional ways as well?

AW: For me, yes. As a long-term benefit, I find massage a necessity. I sometimes don’t realize how much tension I hold in all areas of my body, and having someone who is trained to focus on helping to relieve that tension is necessary for my health. It’s why my husband and I decided to have me continue professional massage long after I had “healed.” I’d also had a therapist recommend I read “The Body Keeps the Score,” a book about how your body holds trauma, and massage is one of the ways to help with eliminating stored trauma in the body. I will say, however, that my mindset changed after my injury. Prior to my injury, I might have been OK with any massage therapist. Today, I get very nervous if I don’t have a massage therapist I’m comfortable with. My scars are in a very intimate place, and having to retell my story to someone who isn’t already used to them is overwhelming. I’d give the advice to other burn survivors to not be afraid to speak up when it comes to your body. Ask questions. I specifically asked any massage therapist that I worked with if they’d been trained in scar massage, and even recommended Jen’s scar massage class to some of my local therapists.

See Also: How Massage Benefits Veterans