The Palpitations of Palpations: Was that Coronoid or Coracoid?

This is the third article in an ongoing series about massage school,
the issues of being a massage student, and the many difficulties and joys
of entering a wellness profession.

The first day of a hands-on kinesiology class (in our program, Introduction to Palpation) features many students full of excitement, anxiety, wonder, and a little fear. While some students might have an idea of what to expect, the realities of what it means to learn an entirely new language –  the Greek and Latin of science – elude most students until they’ve actually begun taking classes. For, before you know it, you are thoroughly involved with bony landmarks such as the olecranon process and the occipital protruberance; you find yourself dreaming in the transverse and saggital planes; and you spend your showers reciting the biomechanics of how the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior oppose each other rotationally to stabilize the shoulder girdle in abduction for a push-up. So, it is not surprising that the first confusion many students encounter is related to vocabulary.

And so it is that many students quickly come to appreciate the relationship (and difference) between two very similar sounding words. Palpation means to examine by touch and is among the foundations of hands-on work such as massage. Palpitation is when one’s heart beats strongly and rapidly. Palpitations, incidentally, are what occur for most students during practical exams in a palpation class. These are very different words, and burgeoning massage therapists should know the difference.

Embarking on, what is for most, a completely new journey into the uncharted waters of the Latin and Greek terminology that comprises the language of the body is not an easy one. The human body contains some 640 muscles and 206 bones, though there are always exceptions – some people don’t have a 12th rib, for instance, and some have an extra lumbar vertebra; and around 14 percent of people don’t have a palmaris longus muscle at all! Massage therapists do not have to be experts in every one of those muscles and bones, but you will learn about many of the most significant of them while in school.

Trying to learn a new language is always easier with repetition, so regular quizzes and practical exams actually make memorization easier, since students are forced to review content multiple times. Ultimately, though, students much each create their own systems to clarify and understand terms so that they not only memorize, but know, the body. What exactly is the coronoid process? How does it differ from the corocoid process? Is an epicondyle bigger or smaller than a condyle? How do you distinguish between the two (especially with your instructor standing next to you during a practical exam)? These questions and many others will slowly pull the cloak of confusion away, and luckily, students get a lot of practice during class and have access to expert advice from instructors and other students. So, somehow, in a few short months, students learn to answer with confidence when an instructor says “please show me the origin, insertions, and actions of the sternocleidomastoid, along with two endangerment sites.” Somehow, it becomes doable, even easy, to point to the brachial plexus and subclavian artery, and reel off the attachments of sternocleidomastoid (and pronounce them all!). And suddenly, one realizes they are becoming fluent in this strange language of the body.