I’m receiving a fantastic massage: I feel warmed, relaxed; I am breathing slowly and deeply, my muscles humming, joints loosened. But there’s something missing, I realize, as the practitioner adjusts the drape and leaves the room. It’s been missing from many massages I’ve had recently, removed from the curricula of some of the massage schools I’ve taught at, absent in the textbooks I use in my classes—set aside, I suspect, in pursuit of the 50-minute massage demanded by some employers. What’s missing? Massage of the muscles of facial expression—those that convey surprise, joy, anger, attraction, amusement, hope, despair, and countless more subtle and overt signals of our inner emotions. So, as great as this massage has been, it feels incomplete to me in a significant way.
Why Massage the Face?
As a teacher and public speaker, I depend on facial expressions as much as other classroom tools to attract and engage my students. As every caring teacher does, I communicate my excitement about the day’s lessons by widening my obicularis oculi, contracting corrugator supercilii, engaging levator anguli oris. Believe me, at the end of a four-hour lecture, my facial muscles are exhausted! Our faces are rarely, if ever, still; we use these muscles even when we’re not actively communicating. Check out your students during an exam or as they practice a new table technique: their faces are contorted, tensed, brows furrowed, lips pursed, jaws clenched. I don’t know about your family, but mine smiles, frowns, and gapes openmouthed as they watch a movie or play a video game. Massage therapists automatically focus on other muscles that are overused, so why are facial muscles being left out?
The issue may well begin during training, among both students and instructors. When I was in massage school, massage of facial muscles was included in the curriculum, but touching the face terrified me, and my technique showed it: I was awful. I knew I had to understand and overcome my aversion. I realized that, for me, touch of the face reflected an intimacy that touch elsewhere did not—and I wasn’t ready to deal with that degree of intimacy.
Learn Anatomy of the Face
I needed to grow as a student and become more comfortable in my own skin (my own face, if you will), before I was able to face the face. So, I identified, located, and palpated each bone of the skull and the face, each muscle of facial expression, and the muscles that attach to and move the ear. I drew them on blank templates of the face, creating as many different types of faces as I could—high zygomatic arches, wide frontalis bones, receding mandibles, estimating the effect each had on the placement or orientation of attaching muscles.
Practice Various Strokes and Positions
My next strategy was to work on the face seated, so that I no longer felt I was hulking over the client’s face. I also found that, when seated, my hands became more relaxed, my strokes more fluid. I began to focus on my own breathing as I massaged a client’s face—like most people, I tend to hold my breath when I’m uncomfortable with a technique—and my deep, relaxed breaths encouraged the client’s facial muscles to let go, too. Specific strokes I use in facial massage include compressions, circling strokes, gentle pinches, vibration using the fingertips, and gliding strokes using finger pads.
Over the course of my practice, I came to love massaging the face—and the client compliments that resulted. I began to experiment with new, distinctive strokes and techniques for facial massage (eventually developing a detailed 30-40 minute facial massage protocol that I offer as an NCBTMB-approved CE class).
The Effects of Facial Massage
The effects of facial massage that I have observed in my clients over more than two decades include temporarily stimulating local circulation, reducing eye puffiness, gently exfoliating through the mechanical action of massage, lubricating the skin, and relaxing tight facial and jaw muscles. Indications for facial massage that I’ve identified range from TMJD, chronic sinusitis, and eye strain, to massage for a client following a dental procedure or before a public event or portrait session. In addition, facial massage may be appropriate when touch elsewhere on the body is contraindicated.
Cautions and Contraindications
As with any skin-to-skin touch, there are cautions and contraindications to facial massage that are observed. Cautions include aging skin; dentures, dental plates, and orthodontia; recent cosmetic or dental surgery, and personal or family history of skin cancer. Recent cosmetic procedures such as exfoliations, chemical peels, and micro-dermabrasion, and chemotherapy side effects may delay facial massage. Local contraindications include non-contagious lesions or growths such as skin tags, moles, and other keratoses; diagnosed basal cell carcinoma on the face or neck; site of recent skin lesion removal; touch around the eye, if contacts are left in, and recent eye surgery. Regional contraindications include cystic acne on the face; squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma on the face or neck (pending medical clearance); stye or conjunctivitis; fever or infectious condition (such as impetigo, cold sore, or cellulitis); bodywide edema, systemic inflammation, and any health condition that contraindicates regional touch or massage with circulatory intent.
For clients seeking a full-body treatment in most therapeutic massage settings, a basic, relaxing facial massage can be performed in around 5 minutes, meaning that it can easily be incorporated into a 50-minute session, adding a dimension of completeness to the client’s experience, with no loss of attention to target areas.
For questions about facial massage techniques, please contact me at email@example.com. To learn more about my NCBTMB-approved CE workshop, Enhance Your Practice with Facial Massage, please visit www.juliegoodwinlmt.com.