Using medical massage therapy to complement treatments

After a lifetime of dealing with scoliosis, this 90-year-old woman finds relief through medical massage therapy.
September 28, 2017

Valerie Webb is a pro at helping people relax. But that’s not her primary job.

As a licensed massage therapist, Webb has thousands of hours of experience working bodies into a relaxed state, but her role at UCHealth Medical Fitness in Windsor and UCHealth Occupational Health in Fort Collins is to use her advanced training in medical message therapies to help treat patients.

Such was the case with 90-year-old Barbara Kansteiner.

Barbara Kansteiner riding her bike with the help of medical massage therapy at UCHealth.
After a lifetime of managing her scoliosis, 90-year-old Barbara Kansteiner has found that a twice-weekly 30-minute medical massage keeps her going. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Kansteiner was diagnosed with scoliosis at 19, which was considered late in her life to significantly correct this abnormal curvature of her spine. It was the 1940s, and her doctor recommended she drop out of college to manage her condition. She was fitted for a brace that wrapped around her torso as a corrective measure. And she then began a regimen of physical therapy that would continue throughout her life.

“My spine was in the shape of an S,” she said. “And the doctor said I’d be in a wheelchair by 40 if I didn’t do anything about it.”

But now in her 90s, a mother to three, grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to nine, Kansteiner still gets around well walking, and even rides on her recumbent bicycle. In fact, she rides it at least twice a week to UCHealth Medical Fitness, where she meets with Webb for a 30-minute medical massage therapy session.

What is medical massage therapy?

“Val is so good at what she does,” Kansteiner said. “She finds those trigger points and knows how to work them just perfectly to release the pain in all those muscles. It really enables me to walk more comfortably.”

Kansteiner first saw the physical therapy team at UCHealth Medical Fitness in Windsor, having just moved down the street and needing to have PT closer to home. And it was that team that referred Kansteiner to Webb.

“Barbara  is very savvy about her health and was looking for alternatives,” Webb said. “Her whole life she has looked for ways to help her body compensate with the spine she’s been given, and I can feel how her body has adapted to that spine.”

When Webb first sees a patient, she reviews their medical history then assesses their health and muscles.

“I’m not just feeling but looking at the person — how they stand, lean, shift and walk,” Webb said. “The treatment is segmented by specifically targeting areas, but as a therapist, I like to look holistically at the person’s posture as well.

“With Barbara, there was that immediate visual when she walked in,” Webb continued. “She couldn’t straighten her spine because her hips hurt so badly. If she is gone for a while from our sessions, her body tries to revert back to that because she’s had a lifetime of her body trying to compensate.”

The difference in medical massage therapy

At first, Webb met with Kansteiner once a week for 30-minute sessions to specifically target areas of the lower body. After warming the tissue and doing myofascial release, she starts working with muscle-energy techniques called post-isometric relaxation and reciprocal inhibition. These active, isolated stretches require clients to participate. They concentrically contract a specific (target) muscle at only 20 percent while Webb does a series of incremental stretches with resisted contract and relax — active vs. passive therapy. Then the client performs a reciprocal inhibition (eccentric) contraction from a neutral position. This helps reset muscle proprioceptors to a balanced, resting length and tension.

“This is not a massage where you lie still, but there also is no popping, cracking or jerking,” Webb said. “It’s working with the muscles as they release.”

Besides being a professional, bonded member of the American Massage Therapy Association, Webb has continued her education through focused medical treatment courses in areas including orthopedic massage for pelvic stabilization and lower body, trigger-point therapy, neuromuscular techniques, clinical assessments for hand and forearm treatment, and treatment of nerve injuries.

Neuromuscular therapy is a specialized form of deep tissue massage in which digital pressure and friction are used to release areas of strain in the muscle. These areas of strain are called tender or trigger points and are the cause of muscular pain symptoms, Webb said.

There is currently no industry certification for “medical massage” therapy, but Webb was hired for the UCHealth team in April 2016 because of her training and more than 11 years of experience in advanced massage therapy, which focuses on treatment, according to Audra Shultz, manager for UCHealth Medical Fitness.

“Her knowledge and experience allow her focus to be on improving the overall result and pain level of a patient,” Shultz said. “Her techniques are very valuable and beneficial from a treatment perspective. Many people are going to go to her for a specific issue. There is a goal when you visit, and she’s working on that the entire time.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.