If it's not essential, you probably shouldn't do it.

By Korin Miller
July 28, 2020
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Fact: Most people are stressed to the max right now. So it only makes sense that, if you have the financial means to do it, you’d want to get a massage. But is that a good idea right now?

As you probably already know, so many things in life right now come with the risk of contracting COVID-19, and the ultimate decision on whether you’re OK with that risk comes down to you. “A lot depends on each person’s risk tolerance and how much risk they want to accept,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specific recommendations on how to be as safe as possible while doing a slew of different everyday activities. But unfortunately for you and your aching shoulders, there’s nothing in there about getting a massage. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not safe—it’s just not covered by the CDC. So, is it safe to get those knots massaged out? Here’s what the experts have to say about it.

What's the risk of getting a massage?

In a massage setting, the biggest risk you're taking is being in close contact with another person. That's because COVID-19 is mainly thought to spread between people who are within six feet of each other through respiratory droplets created when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, the CDC says. Those droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs. There is some evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may be airborne in certain situations, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

Past that, there may also be some risk in coming into contact with frequently-touched surfaces (like a massage table), since COVID-19 may also be spread by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. (The CDC, however, says this is not thought to be the main way the virus is transmitted).

What are massage companies doing to keep you safe?

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the largest nonprofit, professional association serving massage therapists, has some pretty in-depth information online on what massage studios and companies can do to keep you safe. In addition to following sanitation recommendations from the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the AMTA recommends that masseuses do the following:

  • Institute thorough cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing protocols in the massage room, as well as any communal areas and of any objects clients touch.
  • Consider using personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves.
  • Practice proper hand hygiene.
  • Space out appointments to allow for sanitization between clients and better social distancing.
  • Tweak the cancellation policy to allow for clients to cancel if they show signs of illness.
  • Have clients fill out forms before they show up.
  • Encourage clients to space out, practice good hand hygiene, and use protective equipment like masks.

The Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), a national massage and bodywork practitioner association, also has detailed recommendations for massage therapists. That includes asking therapists to wear a face mask at all times, wear gloves if they have to handle cash or a credit card, and change their shirt or apron after a client leaves. The ABMP also recommends that masseuses conduct a health pre-screening for clients, remove clutter in rooms, and space out waiting room seating. During the massage, the ABMP says that both the masseuse and client should be wearing a face mask. Rooms should be aired out afterward, the ABMP says.

Of course, these are all just recommendations and individual massage parlors and studios can choose to follow them or not. That’s why it’s a good idea talk to the place you’re considering visiting in advance to find out what safety measures they’re doing, Dr. Adalja says.

With all of those precautions in place, is it safe to get a massage right now?

Unfortunately, “safe” isn’t a word that applies to doing most things in public or around people outside of your household these days, Dr. Adalja says. But, he says, it really “depends on the logistics.” If a massage company follows the guidelines put in place by public health organizations, then it may be “relatively safe,” Dr. Adalja says.

Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, agrees. “You can minimize risk so it’s relatively safe, but you can never drive risk down to zero,” he says. “Everyone has to be wearing masks—good masks—and wearing them properly. That’s an absolute mandatory aspect of this or any sort of indoor activity.”

Some organizations can also have people come to your house to give you a massage, but Dr. Adalja says that’s really just trading one risk for another. “Corporate massage chains have put in place a lot of different measures that are not going to be present if you’re getting a home massage,” he says. “But having a massage at home means you won’t have to be in a waiting room, around other people." Still, having a masseuse come to your house takes some risk out of it for you, but adds extra risk for them.

Something that wasn’t mentioned by the AMTA or ABMP is that getting a massage outside is considered safer than having one indoors. “We know that outdoor settings are less likely to lead to the spread of the virus,” Dr. Adalja says. “Anything that can mimic outdoor settings, like opening a window, is ideal. Increasing ventilation could decrease the risk of transmission.” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees. “Ideally, have it done outdoors,” he tells Health.

But even with those precautions in place, Dr. Watkins isn’t exactly into the idea of getting a massage right now. “I don't recommend getting a massage,” he says. “With cases of COVID-19 rising in many parts of the country, people really need to focus on just doing essential activities, and a massage is not essential. You are indoors, in close proximity for a prolonged period of time with someone you barely know. These things amplify risk for getting COVID-19.”

Ultimately, this is one of those things that boils down to how comfortable you feel taking a risk. When you’re trying to make that decision, Dr. Adalja recommends factoring in things like case counts in your area and how well the virus seems to be contained.

You should also take your personal situation into account. “If this is a purely pampering luxury time that you could do without and you’re a vulnerable individual or you interact with vulnerable individuals, it’s best to skip it,” Dr. Russo says. “But if massage is really important for your pain-related issues, and you don’t live in a multi-generational household or with vulnerable individuals then it might be worth considering. You have to weigh the risks and benefits.”

And, if you know you’re likely to be stressing out about your risk of contracting the virus the whole time you get a massage, it’s probably not worth it. “It really depends on risk tolerance and how badly you want the massage,” Dr. Adalja says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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