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Massage Therapy and Ergonomics: Feeling No (or at Least Less) Pain

Ellen Gilbert

An image of a woman uncomfortably bent over a keyboard as she peered, with considerable effort, into a computer monitor, came up on the screen in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library last Wednesday evening. “That’s me!” exclaimed a young woman in the audience, as others nodded their heads in recognition. Need help? You might try physical therapist James McCracken, and/or massage therapist Nancy Fabius.

Both Mr. McCracken and Ms. Fabius know how incorrectly many of us sit at work all day. Both know — all too well — the consequences of poor posture, badly positioned hands, and trying to cradle a phone by squishing it between your ear and shoulder. At the library’s “Work in Comfort” session last week, Mr. McCracken, the Coordinator of Outpatient Rehabilitation at the University Medical Center at Princeton, offered tips on how straighten up and sit right.

Standing is equally important, by the way, and Mr. McCracken made this point by periodically stopping his presentation so everyone could get up and stretch. “Our bodies are not designed for sitting hours on end,” he said, as he had audience members bend backwards in a lumbar extension exercise, followed by a shoulder retraction (lock your hands behind your back). Getting up and moving around keeps the blood flowing, sending needed nutrition to cartilage and muscles, and flushing out waste products created as the body works.

Mr. McCracken believes in “fitting the work station to the person — not the reverse.” If you can’t change the height of your computer monitor, change the height of your chair. People with a history of neck or shoulder problems should consider a chair with good armrests. Waiting for a program to load on your computer? Move your arms around in the meantime, and never let your wrists remain for long periods on the unfortunately-named “wrist rest.” Little things are important too: Mr. McCracken extolled (and distributed, to lucky attendees) gel ink pens with wide, non-slip grips at the end, which require less pressure to hold and write with.

Ergonomic assessments and industrial rehabilitation are among the Outpatient Rehabilitation Services offered at the Medical Center. Staff conduct on-site postural and functional assessments of work sites to help employees to better utilize muscle strength and function, while reducing pain or chance of injury at work. Other services include fitness assessments preliminary to implementing an exercise routine; personal training; therapy for back and neck pain; hand rehabilitation; and pain management using a wide range of modalities, including manual therapy and flexibility exercises, offered in conjunction with home exercise routines. Mr. McCracken can be contacted at (609) 430-7880, or

An Old Art

The word “ergonomics,” or fitting the task to the human, is fairly recent concept. Massage, on the other hand (no pun intended), is one of the oldest healing arts. Chinese records dating back 3,000 years document its use. Ancient Hindus, Persians, and Egyptians used massage for many ailments, and Hippocrates, the ancient Greek who is often called “the father of medicine,” recommended the use of rubbing and friction for joint and circulatory problems.

Princeton-area massage therapist Nancy Fabius describes what she does as “the ultimate in health care,” noting that its objectives are quite similar to those of good ergonomic practices. “Some of the most popular reasons for visiting a massage therapist are due to repetitive stress injuries at work and play,” she said. In addition, “therapeutic massage is often used to enhance the beneficial effects of other types of healthcare, such as physical therapy.”

Ms. Fabius, who has a degree in Health Science with a concentration in physiology, received her certification through the Gentle Healing School of Massage and Educational Center in Cranbury. In her Swedish massage treatment, she integrates Shiatsu, sports massage, joint mobility, and cranial sacral techniques. She is also a graduate of Atelier Esthetique Institute of Esthetics in New York City, where she completed classes in advanced facial treatments, specializing in the treatment of sun-damaged and aging skin, and accupressure.

“While all therapists are facilitators toward optimal health, Ms. Fabius commented, “it’s the client/patient who makes the initial decision to prevent the onset of disease, or to decrease pain.” She emphasized the importance of preventive measures, counseling people to “listen to your body. Find your healthy, happy ritual, which may include yoga, meditation classes, visits to the park or library, or a quiet meal.”

A good relationship with a massage therapist, she noted, can be really helpful. “Together, you can key in on what your body is trying to communicate.” A “comprehensive assessment” of weak or imbalanced features in the body (fatigue, tight muscles, stress, or even headaches) “will reveal signs of imbalances which, if not addressed may result in illness or chronic pain.” Once these imbalances are identified, she said, a professional can offer advice on “rehabilitation, good ergonomic practices, and helpful breathing techniques.”

Ms. Fabius, who has a private practice and also works at the Princeton YWCA, can be contacted by email at

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