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How Massage Therapists Can Recognize And Deal With A Heart Attack

How Massage Therapists Can Recognize And Deal With A Heart Attack

“I have had a few times in practice where I’ve caught a myocardial infarction and called 911, if this has yet to happen to you, be forewarned, it will” – Robert Libbey RMT


I’ll never forget that day walking into the hospital.

He didn’t look like himself and wasn’t acting like himself.

He was too young for this to happen and I was too young to really understand it.

Years later he told me the story about, feeling chest pain at home and thought there was something wrong so he jumped in the car and headed to the hospital.

Halfway there he lost the use of his arms and had to steer with his knees.

My dad was in his thirties and had a heart attack. I use this story whenever I teach a First Aid course. You wouldn’t think an otherwise healthy guy in his 30’s would suffer a heart attack, let alone one with two young boys and a wife at home.

Thankfully he survived but had an issue with his heart a couple years later.

We had to change the way we did things, the way we ate and the way we lived.

He wasn’t sure how to recognize what was happening that day or even acknowledge that it was a heart attack.

How about you?

Could you recognize it if this happened in your clinic, or to one of your family members?

Differentiating Chest Pain In Your Massage Therapy Clinic

I’ve said it before and will continue to harp on it.

As healthcare professionals this is something we really need to be able to pick up on, which isn’t always easy to do.

If someone is having a heart attack, they really don’t want to admit it. Their mortality is staring them in the face at this point and realizing that something major is going on isn’t an easy thing to face, in fact most people will completely deny the possibility they are having a heart attack.

That day my dad didn’t want to admit things might be worse.

It would have been fatal if things has progressed anymore on the drive to the hospital. Thankfully he didn’t drive off the road when he lost the use of his arms.

We need to realize the differences in pain to understand whether someone is having a heart attack, indigestion or if something muscular is going on.

If you are going through your typical assessment before a treatment and your patient is having brief chest pain as a result of bending or breathing deep, it’s probably not a heart attack.

Some even feel that it is, or starts as indigestion. However, if it is a heart attack it will continually get stronger over time.

If someone is having a heart attack I have heard it described as “an elephant sitting on my chest”.

While writing this post, I called my dad to ask what the pain was like. He said:

“It felt like someone drove a sword through my chest, pain down both arms and through to the back, it was ten times worse than having any kind of indigestion”

The pain can range from mild to a description of squeezing, or tightness and constricting to a crushing feeling in the chest.

If one of your patients is having chest pain and it lasts longer than ten minutes, it’s time to get them some help.

Signs And Symptoms For Massage Therapists To Recognize

These are going to be a bit different between women and men.

As my dad mentioned he had pain going down both arms. Generally, it will be in the left arm as well as going up the neck and into the jaw. These signs are pretty much the norm when it comes to men.

With women, they quite often get low back pain. Women can also exhibit some soft signs, which are a little harder to pick up on, but just as important to understand and read because it sometimes goes unrecognized.

Some of these can be stomach pain, flu symptoms and some chest pain that changes with the level of activity. These symptoms are also common in those with diabetes and the older population.

There are a few other signs that usually don’t get talked about much (at least in basic First Aid courses).

Here are a few of the other things that you may see:

While you won’t see this every time, they are all signs that can help you make a decision as to what is happening with someone or how severe their condition is.

Photo by: Alessandro Bonvini

What Massage Therapists Can Do To Help

The first thing we need to do as Robert mentioned is call 911.

Stay calm!

When you call 9-1-1 the dispatcher needs some information from you and the calmer you stay, the better!

They need your address and this is the most critical piece of information because if they can’t get that from you, they can’t get help to you.

They will also ask for your return phone number. They need this to be able to call you back and get more information or to help the crews on their way locate you. It is also so that if you need help they can coach you through what you’re doing.

They will also try to get as much information about the patient as they can. Age, sex, physical condition, level of discomfort, pain and surroundings are all critical information for the arriving crew to have before they get there, so they know what they are getting into.

After that call is made, getting the patient into a position that provides them with the most comfort is the best thing we can do for them. Usually, this is going to be in a seated position leaning forward, but just go with whatever position they say is most comfortable.

Now I know most clinics aren’t going to have this on hand, but getting them some aspirin is going to help things out. And it has to be Aspirin, not Tylenol or Ibuprofen…Aspirin.

It works as a blood thinner so it can help relieve tension on the heart as well as help diminish clots. 

All too often this goes unrecognized or people don’t want to admit it, so they don’t ask for any help. Unfortunately, this could be fatal as it leads to cardiac arrest and the need for CPR.

The more you can do to recognize and be aware of what’s going on with your patients, the more you’ll be able to help and prevent things from getting to that point. Being able to recognize and differentiate the pain a person is experiencing is key to understanding what’s going on with them. Also knowing that the signs and symptoms can be different between men and women can go a long way to recognizing that there is an emergency happening. And remember, this is the only time it’s okay to ask about erectile dysfunction drugs!

“Heart disease is no laughing matter. After my father suffered a massive heart attack, I realized just how serious heart disease can be” – Cheryl Hines

As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.

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Jamie Johnston

Founder at The MTDC
As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.
Jamie Johnston
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Latest posts by Jamie Johnston (see all)


  1. Melissa April 29, 2016

    Great article! I’m enjoying reading on your site. We can all learn something from each other as massage therapists. Keep on writing 🙂

    • Jamie Johnston April 29, 2016

      Thanks Melissa, I agree we all can learn from each other, we all have something to give.

  2. Gisele Seto February 14, 2017

    Thanks for sharing! An eye-opener!

  3. Adam March 14, 2017

    A good eye opener! I’m very happy that someone has addressed this! Thank you!

    • Jamie Johnston March 15, 2017

      Thanks Adam, glad you enjoyed the article, hopefully you never have to actually use it!

  4. Edie April 19, 2017

    So to be clear, if the client DID take VIAGRA does that mean NO ASPRIN? And in what time frame are we taking about….Viagra in the last 24 hours or last 3 days? Same for the female version of Viagra? I truly enjoyed this article and your style of writing….just asking.

    • Jamie Johnston May 29, 2017

      Hi Edie, thanks for the comment. I made a mistake in that post, the question about erectile dysfunction drugs is to be asked before administering Nitroglycerin for a person with angina who is having an attack or possible heart attack. In this case, if they have taken Viagra or Levitra within 24 hours or Cialis in the last 48 hours they cannot take their nitroglycerin. In the case of a heart attack, the aspirin is okay to give. Thanks for the question, it helped me see my mistake and update the post.

  5. Raul Mosqueira June 18, 2017

    This was a great post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. Nicole Maer June 13, 2018

    Great article! As massage therapists it is vital to understand how to handle emergencies pertaining to other health issues, as they work in close proximity to all kinds of patients. It is also important that when people hire therapists, to tell them about all their health complications in advance, so that they are well equipped to handle sudden crisis.

  7. Lizz in Sarasota (Massage Therapist and CPR Instructor) November 8, 2018

    Great article! I teach CPR as well as being a massage therapist. I think crossing over your knowledge to both professions is invaluable. My mom had an early heart attack as well. Thank you for this article!

    I’ve also had the client who went to the hospital for chest pain that turned out to be a trigger point. We heard that potential in massage school and eventually, it happened! Resolved the tight muscles and the chest pain stopped.

    • Jamie Johnston November 10, 2018

      Hey Lizz, glad to see other massage therapists out there teaching life-saving skills as well.

  8. Rebecca March 9, 2019

    I just had a client that had a massive heart attack after massage was done and dressed no symptoms nothing and fell down and died
    Fist time in my 16 years of doing massage

    • Jamie Johnston March 9, 2019

      Wow, sorry to hear that Rebecca, it can be really tough to experience that, hope you’re doing well.

  9. Emma March 26, 2019

    This is a good post. This post give truly quality information.I’m definitely going to look into it.Really very useful tips are provided here.thank you so much.Keep up the good works. I really appreciate sharing this great post. I like this blog and have bookmarked it. Thumbs up

  10. da nang massage May 18, 2019

    Good post. Thanks the author


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