Therapist Spotlight: Natalie Heng

Natalie Heng is a journalist-turned-massage-therapist in her third and final year of a degree level qualification in advanced clinical massage. Here she talks about how her passion for massage therapy developed, how she looks after her own well-being, and her most rewarding clinical experience so far…
What inspired you to pursue a career in massage therapy?
There wasn’t a clear-cut pathway to how I became a massage therapist – I stumbled on the idea when I was going through a transitional period in my life. I’d been a features writer for a number of years and loved journalism – but it was hard to switch my brain off after work, and there were concerns about job security amidst the shifting sands of online versus print media. Due to family circumstances, I decided to move back to the UK from my base in Malaysia. Initially, I was interested in massage as something I could do for a living whilst meditating on the bigger picture; a way to buy time whilst figuring out what I wanted from life and a career. I studied biology for my undergraduate degree and covered science among other topics as a writer – so I am both curious and critical about how things work. As I explored options and qualifications, I became increasingly excited as I began to see the potential of massage as an end in itself. There is so much to explore in manual therapy – from gaining an understanding of the interplay between musculoskeletal and nervous systems within the context of human lifestyle, behaviour, posture and pain; to the different schools of thought on how and what aspects of someone’s physiology you are targeting when deploying different treatment practices. It soon became clear that massage therapy could offer me everything I wanted from a career – highly rewarding work, the opportunity to have a direct impact on people’s lives, and ample room for professional and personal growth. Now that I am years deep into my journey – not only do I get to make a living taking care of other people, I’ve also learned how to take better care of myself.
What are your next steps in your career – what courses have you signed up for and what are you wanting to learn?
I am currently in the final year of my BTEC level 6 in clinical and sports massage at the Jing Institute. I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation and graduating this year, however I decided to defer my research project due to Covid-19. Now that we have established better protocols for PPE in relation to hands-on work, with life and the economy returning to some semblance of normality (hopefully) as we move toward deployment of a vaccine, I aim to be picking things up again next spring and finishing the project for graduation at the end of next year. In the meantime, I have been working at my own pace through three online courses to hone my skills in assessment, aftercare, and anatomy in relation to bodywork. I have a specific interest in deepening my understanding of the relationship between local dysfunctions and global compensation patterns. My goals are to get even more efficient at not only addressing pain in an ad-hoc way but also developing longer-term treatment plans based on sound clinical reasoning for individualised treatments and evidence-based aftercare plans that are specific to the individual and grounded in clinical reasoning. Here’s what I’ve been up to these past two lockdowns:

  • Orthopaedic Exercise Specialist Program by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) – a third of the way through.
  • Clinical & Orthopaedic Massage Professional Course series by Whitney Lowe – halfway through.
  • A variety of mini CPD courses via an annual subscription with the Brookbush Institute for Movement Science – completed the overhead squat assessment course with many more on my list to get through!

What do you do to keep yourself healthy?
When I am in good form, I try to exercise at least three times a week. This usually consists of 30-minute jogs or some form of HIIT exercises at home. I know it’s not much, but I find that if I give myself small goals I am far more likely to exceed them! I also try and incorporate yoga into my stretching routines. I usually do this before or after exercise.

If there’s anything I have found that makes a huge difference to how I feel and keeps niggles and pain at bay, it’s yoga! I find that Yoga with Adriene has lots of videos with yoga for all levels, and the youtube channel Boho Beautiful has some really great content for challenging my strength and mobility. I also love kayaking and going for long walks – this happens only occasionally.

Aside from that, I love eating and cooking (in that order) and naturally have quite an eclectic palate and instinct for healthy food. Being half Chinese I grew up eating rice, diverse meat dishes and lots of vegetables. My plate is always colourful with a diverse source of micronutrients which is great for gut health.

I try and meditate occasionally but above all, I recognise that making sure I have time to myself – whether that’s going for walks, reading, or simply doing daily tasks without feeling time-pressured, gives me the space I need to daydream, reflect and think creatively – which in turn helps me recharge and be the best version of myself when I am around other people.

What sort of clients do you most enjoy treating?
I particularly love treating people who really love being massaged. I know that sounds like a strange thing to say because surely anyone going for a massage loves being massaged – otherwise they wouldn’t go! And my aim is obviously for everyone to love my massages!

But the truth is, I accept people come into sessions for different reasons. Many people enjoy sessions and get a lot out of it by benefiting from pain reduction, gains in mobility, or simply feeling better in their bodies. But occasionally (pretty often, actually) you get people who really really connect with the experience and let you know it – either during the treatment or after.

I am one of those people who deeply appreciates it when I find someone who can give me the care that I need. And it’s rare! But it means so much to me that I walk away with the deepest sense of gratitude. It’s so special! And I recognise when someone else feels the same way about how the session is going. To have just the right amount of pressure, in just the right places, with just the right depth and pace, is magic.

So when I know I’m really hitting the right spots and making a connection, and someone is able to be present within themselves and their body – and expresses their gratitude for the experience – it’s incredibly validating. Aside from all my other professional and academic interests in bodywork, this is the biggest reason why I love what I do. It’s a little dopamine hit that replenishes and renews me every time and makes me feel great about myself. And hey, what better motivation is there for doing great work than that?

Do you have a great massage ‘story’ to tell?
Fairly early on in my career as a therapist, I had a lady come in distraught with a frozen shoulder. She repeatedly apologised for being upset, but she was stressed and at her wits end for the impact it having on her life – not just the pain but the emotional roller coaster of being stressed and exhausted all the time for never being able to get a good nights sleep.

I surmised from her case history (she’d been experiencing this for a year) and our first treatment session that she may have been going through the thawing stage of frozen shoulder and that the ongoing pain and limitations to movement (she needed help taking her coat off) could have at least partly been due to a combination of trigger points, and nervous system programming and muscular holding patterns due to a learned response and fear-avoidance to protect her shoulder joint, even after it had begun to heal.

I started her session with very slow, gentle work gradually increasing pressure to the level she felt comfortable with. We worked very very slowly, building a foundation of trust before pushing the boundaries to the edge of what she was comfortable with, going a little bit further every time using a combination of PNF stretches, myofascial techniques and trigger point work.

By the end of the session, the most pressing pain she came in with down her arm was gone (pain referral by trigger points in her rotator cuff muscles, I suspect), and she had gained a little more range of motion in her arm. She emailed me to say she had the best sleep in as long as she could remember, and she felt so grateful. She came back again, and we continued the work, and she was able to put on and take off her jacket without pain. She told me the treatment had changed her quality of life, and that she couldn’t thank me enough – perhaps not just for the physical gains we made, but in giving her back hope that her condition could – and would – get better.

​That was my first experience of really feeling like I had made an impact on someone’s life. And though it doesn’t happen often – how much impact you can have on someone’s pain really depends on their circumstances and whether massage is an appropriate treatment for their particular condition – when it does, it is the most wonderful feeling in the world!

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