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Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy

Alternate Names

  • soft tissue energy therapy


Massage therapy manipulates the soft tissues of the body to help return the tissue to normal. The massage therapist uses a systematic application of pressure and movement on the soft tissues of the body.

What is the information for this topic?

There are many different specialized massage techniques commonly used. These include:
  • Swedish massage
  • Rolfing (which uses significant pressure to rebalance joints and restore elasticity)
  • Hellerwork (a form of deep massage combined with movement education and discussions about mind, body, and spirit)
  • shiatsu (a Japanese form of deep massage influenced by traditional Chinese medicine).
Combinations of these techniques are also used. Massage therapists move the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or fascia, which is the membrane that surrounds the muscles. The goal is to promote the flow of blood and lymph. This also serves to relieve tension, stimulate nerves, and keep the muscles elastic and easy to move.
Moving lymph fluid is important because lymph carries waste from the tissues. Lymph does not circulate on its own but relies in part on muscle contraction to keep it moving. That is why massaging the muscles aids the flow of lymph through the body. Massage also moves the blood and increases its oxygen capacity. Massage can both soothe and stimulate the nervous system. Different techniques are chosen to achieve different effects.
Massage can also speed recovery from the fatigue that often follows exercise. This is why many athletes use massage as part of their training plan.
Massage can be combined with aromatherapy by using scented oils. Oils are commonly used to make the therapists' hands move more easily across the skin. The scents from the oils are believed by some to have their own therapeutic effects. Massage may also be combined with meditation or other relaxation therapy. Some massage therapists play relaxing music. The massage therapist will work with the person to provide the most beneficial experience. Individuals can discuss their preferences regarding music, types of oils and combination therapies with the massage therapist.
The massage is usually done on a padded massage table. The person's body is covered with a sheet or a blanket. Only the part that is actively being worked on is exposed at any given time. The person needs to take off only those clothes he or she feels comfortable removing. A massage will generally last for about one hour.
Massage therapists may combine different techniques. Any type of massage therapy will include pressing, stroking, or kneading the muscles of the body. Techniques may include, but are not limited to:
  • effleurage. This is a slow, gliding stroke using the whole hand. It gradually builds pressure in a movement that goes towards the heart.
  • petrissage. This is a kneading, pressing, or rolling movement in which the massage therapist alternates between tightening and loosening his or her grasp.
  • friction. This is a steady pressure or tight circular pressure across the muscle fibers. This movement is commonly used around joints.
  • percussion. These are drumming movements that are usually done on large areas of the body like the back. The hand is moved rapidly over the body in a chopping movement, by clapping on the body, or using a cupped hand.
  • vibration. These are rapid movements that shake the muscles back and forth. Sometimes an electric vibrator is used to accomplish this movement
These techniques form the basis of Swedish massage, which is the most common type of massage used today. The massage therapist may include other types of movement from other disciplines such as shiatsu, Hellerwork, and Rolfing.
There are also many other types of bodywork that include massage as part of the discipline. Deep tissue massage uses slow strokes and deep pressure on painful parts of the body. Sports massage is used to assist training, prevent injury, and to treat sprains, strains and sore tendons. Manual lymph drainage stimulates the lymph system.
A healthcare professional can determine if massage therapy might relieve some of the swelling that follows some surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Massage therapy may have to be avoided if a person:
  • is pregnant
  • has swelling in one area of the body
  • has eaten in the previous two hours, particularly for abdominal massage
  • has just completed chemotherapy or radiation treatment
  • has an infectious skin disease or unhealed wound, possibly including broken bones, bad sprains, or body bruises
  • has phlebitis or varicose veins
  • has a previous history of physical abuse or sexual abuse or finds hands-on therapies uncomfortable.
Although some massage strokes may be somewhat uncomfortable, a person having a massage should generally feel good. If pain or discomfort persists, the massage can be stopped. About half of the states in the U.S. require that massage therapists have a license to practice.
The American Massage Therapy Association also certifies massage therapists. Therapists can be members of this organization if they have proof of graduation from an approved training program, hold a state license, have passed a membership examination or passed the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.


Massage Therapy for Health and Fitness by Elliot Greene, MA, NCTMB, American Massage Therapy Association, 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201

Major Domains of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Center for complementary and Alternative Medicine [NCCAM], Post Office Box 8218, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8218

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