When we experience muscle pain, one thing is for sure: we want to get rid of it as soon as possible. As a provider of in-home massage therapy services, people often contact my company first when seeking relief from things like neck pain, low back pain, and other pain. In most cases we do recommend massage, but oftentimes when the condition is severe, it will be in conjunction with therapies and/or recommendations from other health care providers in order for an individual to get the most immediate and effective results.
So where should a person with muscle pain turn first and why? Primary Care Physician? Chiropractor? Massage Therapist?
Making the right choice largely depends on how a person answers the following questions:
- What is the severity of the condition and how long has it been present?
- What is your general health condition and history, including family medical history?
- Are you willing to take medication prescribed by a traditional medical doctor or must the therapy be all “natural”?
- Is the pain caused by something specific like an injury or a pre-existing condition?
- What kind of insurance, if any, is available and what services will it cover?
- If there is no insurance to cover therapy, what kind of budget do you have to pay for treatments out of pocket?
This may seem like an overly conservative if not complicated approach if we’re just talking about a stiff neck, but the idea is to identify any potentially more serious health conditions, and also to avoid paying for anything that could be covered by insurance.
First let’s get the insurance question out of the way. When it comes to massage therapy, often the only kinds of insurance policies that will pay for it (including at home massage) are auto insurance or workman’s compensation insurance for car and work injuries. Massage therapists can not officially diagnose any condition, so a doctor’s prescription is always required. There is a lot more to this particular side-topic, so for additional information about how this works, please see an articles I have already written about what kinds of insurance covers massage therapy.
It should also be noted that normal health insurance may cover physical therapy, but this is quite different from massage therapy and often requires a prolonged treatment plan.
Next and perhaps more importantly; when someone approaches us with serious pain, we want to make sure that it’s not something they should see a doctor about first. If it is something with a sudden onset, highly abnormal (not just a stiff neck), or possibly associated with other health problems (just to name a few possible red flags) we might recommend seeing a medical doctor first. This assumes that the individual would be open to using medication, because in addition to the myriad of tools at physician’s disposal, it is highly likely that a doctor will prescribe an anti-inflammatory or possibly a prescription pain killer if the pain is severe.
It’s important for people to understand that while massage therapy can be very effective in reducing pain caused by muscle tension and related restrictions, it can only achieve so much with one visit. Typically, in order to address more chronic kinds of pain, multiple sessions will be required to make significant headway. Therefore, it is often not a bad idea to see a doctor who may be able to prescribe medication to help the condition, both in terms of reducing pain immediately, and also for reducing inflammation in general, which is often largely responsible for musculoskeletal pain. These efforts can actually make subsequent massage therapy sessions even more effective.
Think of the tight muscles like a frozen stick of butter. If you try to press into it when it’s right out of the freezer, it’s almost impossible to make a dent. However if it has been defrosted to room temperature (like muscles on an anti-inflammatory), it could be in a much easier state to work with in the care of able hands. This being said, it’s also important to be careful about the use of pain killers before getting a massage and advise the therapist of the current use of any medications.
Another option for those with muscle pain which would fall somewhere in between going to a medical doctor and seeing a massage therapist would be going to see a chiropractor. While a chiropractor can not prescribe medication, they can diagnose certain conditions, perform x-rays, and provide natural therapy including “adjustments” among some other things that massage therapists are not authorized to do. In some cases they may also be able to accept normal major medical health insurance along with a co-payment. For some people this is a good “in-between” option providing a relatively high level of care that is also “natural”. At the same time, there can be drawbacks.