Oh, my aching feet — and this is after the massage

What will it take to make me stop entrusting my body to random foot massage joints?

My feet rarely feel better afterward, and some other part of my body often hurts more by the time the discount treatments are done.

One "soothing" massage left me with a wrenched shoulder, so painful I couldn't lift my hand above my head for months. I've limped home from more botched reflexology sessions than I care to count.

Every time it happens, I vow never again. Then I pass another grand opening of some magic-hands spot, and the penny-pincher in me kicks in.

There are more than a dozen budget massage storefronts near my Northridge neighborhood — how can I resist the promise of Soothing Ocean, Jolly Feet, Lucky Day or Simply Relax?

For $25, you settle into a reclining massage chair and soak your feet; you're in a dimly lighted room, fully clothed and surrounded by other patrons. More often than not, my therapist is a man who smells like cigarettes. He kneads my feet, massages my head, then orders "Turn over, lady," the signal that he's about to begin digging his elbows into my back.

It's a hybrid sort of therapy — part Thai, part Swedish, part amateur martial arts — that can either unkink those knots in your neck or make you feel like you're being tortured.

I've tried enough times to know that the odds are against my emerging pain-free. But I keep going because I love a bargain. And I cherish the idea of 60 minutes of quiet time, with someone tending me.

::

Maybe a better question than why I can't resist is why we have so many shops peddling foot massages in a city where so few people walk.

The business has gotten a boost from loose regulation that makes it cheap to staff a shop and hang out a shingle — and easy for illicit establishments to hide in the crush of discount spas.

But the art of therapeutic massage also is riding a wave of popularity, buoyed by medical evidence that backs its potential to ease everyday stress, pain and muscle aches.

It's the fastest-growing retail sector in the state — extending the benefits of massage to millions who can't afford and don't require Burke Williams ambience.

Women who used to meet for margaritas on Friday night now gather at Happy Feet instead. Carpooling moms head to Far East Massage after they drop off the kids at school. And young women on tight budgets that can't accommodate both a massage and a manicure are apt to do their own nails.

Even shopping malls have massage chairs set up between the pretzel stands and booths selling sunglasses and hair extensions. But then they also have teeth whitening, hair cutting, eyebrow threading and all manner of public grooming that ought to remain behind closed doors.

That's a subject for another column.

::

I'm writing this with a heating pad strapped to my chair. I have no one to blame but myself — and the woman who insisted I'd feel better if I let her walk on my back.

A home improvement project (don't ask) left my neck and shoulders so stiff last week that I could hardly turn my head. I ignored the inner voice that always says: "You get what you pay for" and found a coupon online.

It sounded good: It was two miles from my house, had hot stones, private rooms and "healing" in its name.

But in person, things weren't quite right:

The tiny bathroom near the entrance had a shower, but no sink. There was a razor in the soap dish. (Who shaves for a massage?) And when the treatment was over, I wasn't allowed to leave the room until a newly arrived customer — deep voice, nervous laugh and smelling freshly showered — had been escorted down the hall and into his private room.

I realized then that therapy might not be the specialty of this establishment.

But at least the throbbing in my back has taken my mind off the pain that's lingering in my neck.

No worries. My Groupon folder has 194 massage deals waiting for me right now.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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