Thailand is known the world over for its traditional, therapeutic massage, which is able to relieve muscle tension and physical as well as emotional stress when practised by capable hands.
But the recent case of massage-related death that took place in Chon Buri has raised concerns among not just healthcare authorities but also massage lovers whether the traditional practice in fact comes with certain risks that could potentially lead to death.
Last month, Sombat Kuansak was reported dead after having a Thai massage following muscle pain he developed from playing football. After 30 minutes of a therapeutic session, the 37-year-old couldn't breathe and fell unconscious. He was given a CPR and an ambulance was called and arrived. Despite life-saving protocols, he died. A doctor said his death was due to blood clots in his lung.
Amid the public concern, Dr Phattarapol Jungsomjatepaisal, director of the Department of Health Service Support (HSS) at the Ministry of Public Health, said that Thai massage should never take anyone's life.
"Thai massage has a long history. Massage therapists have been educated to be careful while massaging. There is no way that massage can cause someone's death," said Dr Phattarapol, also an orthopaedist.
"Some improper massages can affect muscles and nerves such as bruised muscles or nerve pains or a herniated disc, but it is impossible to cause someone to stop breathing or stop a heartbeat."
For the unfortunate case in Chon Buri, after investigations, the director of HSS explained that Sombat, the deceased, didn't receive a massage that met the standard of the Ministry of Public Health because he wasn't at a certified massage parlour.
The director of Department of Health Service Support Dr Phattarapol Jungsomjatepaisal Suwitcha Chaiyong
"He was at a herbal product shop. And someone gave him a massage to demonstrate a product," the director said.
It is therefore important to receive a massage at certified parlours because customers should only receive services by licensed masseurs or masseuses. According to the Health Operation Act, in order to get licensed, spa and massage parlours must be screened by officers from the Ministry of Public Health. Any venues that meet standards will be granted a five-year licence. Then, they will have to renew the licence on a yearly basis.
"Currently, there are about 8,000 to 10,000 spa and massage parlours in the country, but only 4,228 places have a licence," the director added. "Before receiving treatment, customers should look for a certified sticker provided by Department of Health Service Support. This sticker for qualified venues must be displayed noticeably at front doors or at reception areas. Any parlours that provide services without certification will be subject to a maximum fine of 50,000 baht and/or a jail term of no longer than six months."
Massage therapists are required to acquire a professional licence and must register at the HSS as well. To qualify for a licence, therapists must be trained for courses created by the HSS. The standard courses sometimes are provided as free lessons arranged by governmental organisations. Or the therapists can go to one of 181 schools nationwide approved to train with the standard courses by HSS.
"If massage therapists haven't been through HSS's courses, they won't get licences and can't work at certified spas or massage parlours. HSS provides several courses that are suitable for masseuses. We also have course for therapists with visually impaired. And after graduating from the courses, therapists can register with HSS free of charge," Dr Phattarapol said.
Despite such protocols from the Department of Public Health, consumers themselves should keep a watchful eye on the services too. Apart from avoiding unlicensed massage parlours or those with dubious conditions, there are certain health factors that clients should take into consideration for the sake of their own safety.
"People having high fever, a broken bone, osteoporosis, a surgical wound, an open wound, inflammation, severe varicose veins, high blood pressure and cancer shouldn't have massage," the orthopaedist advised.
Certified sticker of massage parlours provided by Department of Health Service Support. Suwitcha Chaiyong