Massage: Overview

Massage therapy is the systematized manipulation of soft tissues for the purpose of normalizing them.  The word massage is derived from the Greek word 'massier' which means to knead.  If correctly done on a bare body, it can be highly stimulating and invigorating.  The term 'bodywork' is often used to refer to therapies that are combined or confused with massage, e.g. Shiatsu, Trager, Rolfing, Polarity and Reflexology.

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Many people find a massage beneficial enough to have one on a regular basis, scheduling them as frequently as needed or as often as finances will allow.


Massage has been used for thousands of years as a treatment for many ailments.

Function; Why it is Recommended

The basic goal of massage therapy is to help the body heal itself and to increase health and well-being.  Based on anecdotal data, massage therapists have said for years that massage relaxes people, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, relaxes muscles, increases range of motion, and increases the flow of blood and lymph, thereby cleansing the system.  Therapeutic massage can be used to promote general well-being, enhance self-esteem and help restore a sense of body awareness – important for realizing when you are becoming tense and where you tend to hold your tension.

Practitioners use a variety of physical methods including stroking, rubbing, kneading, percussion and vibration.  Therapists primarily use their hands, but may also use their forearms, elbows or feet.

A general body massage may last for 40-90 minutes and local body massages for 10-15 minutes.  A little moderate kneading and percussion cause muscles to contract and become stronger.  Deep circular kneading and vibration loosens the muscles.  Kneading under and round the muscles can help break up adhesions.  Practitioners generally treat the whole body, using oil to help their hands move over the patient's body.

The ten most popular types of Massage Therapy are:

  1. Swedish Massage Therapy. The most common type, also known simply as Swedish massage or simply massage therapy.  Massage therapists use long, smooth strokes, kneading, and circular movements on superficial layers of muscle using massage lotion or oil.  This is a good one to try first, if you have never had a massage before.
  2. Aromatherapy Massage. This is massage therapy with the addition of one or more scented plant oils called essential oils, to address specific needs.  The oils may be, for example, relaxing, energizing, stress-reducing, balancing.  One of the most common oils used is lavender.  Aromatherapy massage is most suited to stress-related conditions or conditions with an emotional component.
  3. Hot Stone Massage. Heated, smooth stones are placed on certain points of the body to warm and loosen tight muscles and balance energy centers in the body.  The massage therapist may also hold stones and apply gentle pressure with them.  Hot stone massage is good for people who have muscle tension but prefer lighter massage.
  4. Deep Tissue Massage. This targets the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue.  The massage therapist uses slower strokes or friction techniques across the grain of the muscle.  Deep tissue massage is used for chronically tight or painful muscles, repetitive strain, postural problems, or recovery from injury.  People often feel sore for one or two days after deep tissue massage.
  5. Shiatsu. A form of Japanese bodywork that uses localized finger pressure in a rhythmic sequence on acupuncture meridians.  Each point is held for 2-8 seconds to improve the flow of energy and help regain balance.  There is usually no soreness afterwards.
  6. Thai Massage. Like Shiatsu, Thai massage aligns the energies of the body by using gentle pressure on specific points.  Thai massage also includes compressions and stretches.  Instead of just lying on a massage table, the therapist moves and stretches you into a sequence of postures – like Yoga without doing any work!  That massage is more energizing than other forms of massage, also reducing stress and improving flexibility and range of motion.
  7. Pregnancy Massage. Also called prenatal massage, pregnancy massage is becoming increasingly popular with expectant mothers.  Certified practitioners know the proper way to position and support the woman's body, and how to modify techniques.  Pregnancy massage is used to reduce stress and swelling, relieve aches and pains, and decrease anxiety and depression.  It is customized to a woman's individual needs.
  8. Reflexology. Although sometimes called foot massage, it is more than that.  Reflexology involves applying pressure to certain points on the foot that correspond to organs and systems in the body.  It is very relaxing, especially for people who stand on their feet all day or just have achy, tired feet.
  9. Sports Massage. This is specifically designed for people who are involved in physical activity, but it is not only for professional athletes.  The focus isn't on relaxation but on preventing and treating injury and enhancing athletic performance.  A combination of techniques are used; the strokes are generally faster than in Swedish massage.  Facilitated stretching is a common technique to help loosen muscles and increase flexibility.
  10. Back Massage. Some massage clinics offer specific back massages, but you can also book a general massage and simply ask that the massage therapist focuses on your back.

To date, most of the clinical trials of massage have focused on psychological outcomes of treatment.  Good evidence from randomized trials indicates that massage reduces anxiety scores in the short term.  There is more limited evidence that these anxiety reductions are cumulative over time.  Practitioners claim that giving patients a concrete experience of relaxation through massage can facilitate their use of self help relaxation techniques.  The evidence that massage can lead to improved sleep and reduce pain remains anecdotal.  There are some small studies indicating immune stimulation by increasing white blood cell quantity and natural killer-cell activity.

An increasing number of research studies show that massage reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and lymph flow, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, and increases endorphins (thus enhancing medical treatment.)

Although therapeutic massage does not increase muscle strength, it can stimulate weak, inactive muscles and, thus, partially compensate for the lack of exercise and inactivity resulting from illness or injury.  It can also hasten and lead to a more complete recovery from exercise or injury.

Massage therapy decreased the effects of anxiety, tension, depression, pain and itching in burn patients.

Abdominal surgery patients have been found to recover more quickly after massage.

Counter-Indicators and Warnings

In case of acute inflammation of the nerves, massage should be done carefully.  Deep pressure should not be used on swollen nerves for it will increase the inflammation.  Abdominal massage should not be done in cases of general, femoral, inguinal and umbilical hernia; inflammation of the uterus, bladder, ovaries or fallopian tubes; kidney stones; bladder or gall bladder problems; ulcers of the stomach or intestines; and pregnancy.  Abdominal massage should not be performed after a heavy meal, but at least two hours later.  The bladder should be emptied before a massage.

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Massage can help with the following:


Premature/Signs of Aging

Massage can reduce the chronic stress on the body that interferes with normal functioning and contributes to premature aging.


Allergic Rhinitis / Hay Fever

Therapeutic massage can assist drainage of lymphatic fluid.


Varicose Veins

Regular massage from a trained massage therapist can significantly alleviate the discomfort associated with varicose veins.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

Researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage is helpful in decreasing blood pressure in those with hypertension.


In cases of supraventricular tachycardia, stimulation of the vagus nerve is a commonly employed technique to help return the heart rate to normal.  This can be done in several ways:

  • Perform the Valsalva maneuver (briefly strain or bear down as though having a bowel movement)
  • Using one hand, pinch the nose closed with index finger and thumb, while covering your mouth (to provide resistance) and blow out with vigor
  • Pressing/massaging one side of the neck on the carotid artery.  Only press on one side of the neck at a time, not both at once
  • Make yourself gag

All of these techniques serve to stimulate the vagus nerve which slows the heart rate.


Lack of Sleep

Researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage is helpful for improving alertness and performance in office workers.


Weakened Immune System

Medical students at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who were massaged showed a significant increase in white blood cells and natural killer cell activity, suggesting a benefit to the immune system.



Medical students at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who were massaged before an exam showed a significant decrease in anxiety and respiratory rates.

Migraine/Tension Headaches

Researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage is helpful in alleviating pain in migraine sufferers.

In a study of tension headaches, individuals were treated with either a combination of spinal manipulation and massage, or massage and a placebo laser treatment.  Both groups experienced an improvement in symptoms suggesting that massage alone provides benefits for the treatment of tension headaches.

Tumors, Malignant

Cancer, General

It has been found at the James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute in Columbus, Ohio that cancer patients suffer less pain and anxiety after receiving therapeutic massage.

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