What is in a name? The South African context: Official designation or style of massage?
It is important to understand that the term Therapeutic Massage Therapy as used in this country refers to the description of massage as published in the amendments to the Allied Health Professions Act No 63 of 1982 tabled in parliament in 2001. Unlike in certain quarters in the , this term does not imply that therapeutic massage therapy is a particular style or type of massage. It is the designation adopted to distinguish the practise of stand-alone massage from beauty therapy and somatology and the application of massage as a technique to warm muscles prior to e.g. physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment. Already we can differentiate four types of massage applications:
- massage as part of the menu of services offered by a beauty therapist or somatologist;
- massage as preparation for other profession specific treatments e.g. physiotherapy;
- massage as part of an alternative healthcare system e.g. Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (tui-na massage) and
- massage as an independent and autonomous health profession.
As MTA chairperson, Sandra Williams pointed out in a recent article that appeared in a popular magazine, the implication of this piece of legislation is that it regulates not the term Therapeutic Massage Therapy but the act of laying hands on a body with the intention of achieving therapeutic change. Off course the following question arises: What is therapeutic change? Therapeutic change can be described as actions that restore or maintain health. The next important question is whether it is possible to massage a person and not effect therapeutic change?
For the most part, this is the line of reasoning proposed by those who prefer to sidestep the law - that they do not practise Therapeutic Massage Therapy. They describe what they do as a different method, type or style of massage e.g. relaxation massage or rebalancing massage or just plain massage. The aim is to relax, de-stress the patient, to make them feel good, not to achieve therapeutic outcomes, the argument goes.
The fact is that whether it is a slow rhythmic massage, merely rocking the body to achieve a state of relaxation or whether more invasive connective tissue techniques are used, the person who touches the body acts as a catalyst to attain structural and physiological changes in the body. Even a mother rubbing her baby’s back to sooth and comfort, causes physical and chemical changes in the body. Imagine then, the profound influence informed touch performed by a massage therapist can have on the physical and emotional wellbeing of a person. How is it possible then to distinguish between massage that is therapeutic and massage that is not?
There is no difference. The argument that some types of massage are therapeutic and others are not and should therefore be excluded from the Department of Health’s regulations is a red herring. The real reason for wanting to evade the law has more to do with wanting to evade the responsibility and accountability that comes with being a health professional. And they get away with it because they can!