Massage therapy involves the manual manipulation of soft tissues and muscles in the body. This is to promote healing and enhance a person's health and well-being.
It is thought the term 'massage' originates from the Greek word, 'Massein' meaning 'to knead'. It is also linked to the Arabic word, 'mash' which means to 'press softly'. Both aptly describe the treatment, which is now used in healthcare, beauty therapy and sports.
There are more than 250 variations of massage and bodywork therapies used today. Despite the differences between each modality, all of them involve touch and manipulation techniques to move muscles and body tissue. The aim is to relieve stress, tension, pain and a whole host of other ailments.
This page will explore this therapy in depth, looking into the history of massage and the different types.
On this page
- History of massage
- Chinese massage
- Deep lymphatic therapy
- Deep tissue massage
- Indian head massage
- Infant massage
- Hot stone massage
- Lomi lomi massage
History of massage
The history of massage is vast, as the therapy has been used for thousands of years. Its origins lie in the East. Thousands of years ago communities believed the body's energy needs balance in order to maintain good health. Techniques such as acupressure were developed based on energy meridian points. These are stimulated during treatment to restore energy flow.
The earliest known reference to massage dates back to 2700 BC. A Chinese medical text details its use for therapeutic purposes. Since then numerous cultures have built upon those foundations to create their own types of massage. This has resulted in a range of styles and approaches.
In the west
The west was introduced to massage therapy during the Greek empire. The 'father of medicine' Hippocrates, wrote about the therapy in his memoirs. He referred to it as 'rubbing' for the loosening and softening of muscles. During the Roman period, Galen - one of the greatest medical physicians of the time - used the therapy to treat diseases and physical injuries. This contributed to developments in knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Galen is considered the original innovator of sports massage.
Between 1450 and 1600, massage therapy reached Europe. Here it was established in medical schools. During the sixteenth century, French doctor and founder of modern surgery, Ambroise Para started using massage. He found it effective for treating stiff and injured joints. Other European physicians followed suit - integrating the treatment into their practice to be used alongside conventional medicine.
In the nineteenth century, one of the most famous types of massage emerged. The Swedish massage was developed from techniques used in Swedish gymnastics by Henrik Ling. Ling dedicated his life to teaching the practice. Prior to his death, a pupil established a clinic in St Petersburg. This continued to promote awareness of the treatment.
During the 1840s, Dr Mathia Roth, another former student of Ling, brought massage therapy to Britain. Two other students, brothers Charles Taylor and George R Taylor MD introduced the therapy to the U.S. around 1856. The next 30 years saw the popularity of massage soar.
Today, massage therapy is widely available. There is also extensive knowledge and literature on the subject. In recent decades, massage has gained steam in the sports and beauty industries. Today it is commonly used alongside conventional medicine as part of palliative care plans. It has proven beneficial for tackling the pain, discomfort and emotional distress associated with a terminal illness. Find out more on our palliative care page.
Types of massage
As aforementioned, there are many different types of massage. If you are looking to try the therapy, you will need to research the various methods in order to determine which is the right massage for you. This will depend on your individual needs, goals and/or the nature of your ailment.
This massage therapy addresses the build up of emotional and physical tensions in the body that are the result of past incidents. Amatsu therapists will use a range of massage techniques to re-balance the body. They will also provide after care and life skills. The aim is to help clients cope better with any difficulties they face in life - both emotionally and physically.
Amatsu therapists believe that pain can originate in other areas of the body - not just in one spot. Therefore they will work with the body as a whole to bring certain components into balance. In addition to the physical body, they will focus on nutrition, 'qi', the mind and the environment. Motion tests may also be used to check the body's structure and functions.
Although evidence is limited, there are thought to be many benefits of amatsu. These include improved coordination, stabilisation of bone structure and the removal of toxins.
Chinese massage derives from a range of massage techniques, but it is most closely linked to acupuncture. This is because Chinese massage therapists are guided by the meridian system.
Most textbooks on Chinese massage list between 30 and 70 techniques. These include rhythmic strokes and soft tissue manipulation methods that are deep and penetrating. Some Chinese massage therapists will include herbal medicine in treatment to assist with healing.
The primary aim of Chinese massage is to stimulate and re-balance the body's energy (qi). A session can last up to two hours and can be a very deep experience.
Deep lymphatic therapy
Also known as 'lymphatic drainage', deep lymphatic therapy is used to release areas of built-up fluid in the body. The aim is to treat various ailments that are associated with the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is a collection of vessels and nodes that collect and neutralise alien protein or ingested bacteria in the body. When we experience something traumatic, these vessels and nodes can become congested. Over time this congestion builds up until the lymph areas are surrounded by fluid. This swelling is called lymphedema.
Deep tissue massage is performed on each part of the body to release this fluid. Hot fomentation (otherwise known as steam heat) is then applied. This helps to liquefy everything the massage has managed to break down. Deep lymphatic therapy enables the body to re-balance and return to its normal state.
Deep tissue massage
Deep tissue massage aims to realign deeper layers of connective tissue and muscles in order to relieve pain and restore natural movement. It is commonly used to treat chronic aches and pains and tension in the neck, back and shoulders.
Chronic muscle tension is caused by adhesions - ligaments and bands of painful rigid tissue. Adhesions can block our circulation, causing inflammation and limiting our movement. A deep tissue massage can help to break down these adhesions via the application of slow, pressurised movements, with deep strokes and finger pressure. This is to ensure all the sub-layer of muscles and the fascia is stimulated.
Indian head massage
Indian head massage is an Ayurvedic form of healing and relaxation. Thousands of years ago the treatment was applied only to the head and hair area as a remedy for dry scalp conditions. Today it is a much broader therapy, incorporating the upper back, shoulders, upper arms and face. These body parts are considered to be important centres of energy.
Indian head massage has been championed for its therapeutic properties. It can help provide relief from certain physical ailments whilst promoting relaxation, concentration and energy.
Infant massage refers to the application of gentle strokes and rhythmic hand movements to a baby's body. The technique is an ancient practice that was introduced to western society over 30 years ago. It has become more popular in recent years.
A specially trained therapist will teach parents the basics of infant massage. They will be shown a sequence of movements using a special oil. The aim of this therapy is to strengthen the parent-baby bond, and help babies to feel secure and loved. Infant massage can also promote better sleep, relieve discomfort such as wind, and ease emotional stress. It can also support the development of babies born prematurely as it boosts muscle tone and circulation.
Hot stone massage
This therapy involves the use of hot stones placed on the body to treat a range of health concerns. A hot stone massage will typically begin with a traditional Swedish massage to warm up the body. The stones will be sanitised and heated in water, before being placed along the spine, stomach, or other various points of the body. As a stone begins to cool it will be replaced with another.
A hot stone massage is thought to have many benefits. These include:
- Reduced inflammation and swelling.
- Reduced muscle pain and discomfort.
- Increased blood flow.
- Cleaning of the lymphatic system.
- Enhanced well-being.
It is also a highly rejuvenating, and is thought to encourage the release of pent up emotions. Whilst there is no evidence to support the effects of hot stone massage, it is a popular treatment.
Lomi lomi massage
Lomi lomi massage, otherwise known as 'the loving touch' is thought to originate in Hawaii. It refers to a form of full body treatment that promotes relaxation whilst treating muscle pain and tension. A lomi lomi therapist will use long flowing strokes across the whole body. These go from head to toe in a continuous rhythmic movement.
The lomi lomi is well known for its ability to establish a deep connection between massage therapist and client, which contributes to a very intense experience.
Manual lymphatic drainage
The purpose of manual lymphatic drainage is to remove toxins and any excess lymph from the body. Lymph is a clear fluid that bathes cells and carries nutrients to them before returning to the blood stream. It is transported around the body via a network of vessels known as the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is vital for supporting a healthy immune system and helps to fight infection.
Manual lymphatic drainage involves very precise, light, rhythmical hand movements. These are used to encourage the lymph towards the lymph nodes. Here the body is able to eject waste more easily. Manual lymphatic drainage also helps to stimulate build-ups, which can cause swelling of the tissues.
Besides decongesting tissue, the benefits of manual lymphatic drainage are said to include:
- improved functionality of the immune system
- clearer skin
- deep relaxation
- increased energy.
Postnatal massage is designed to help the mind and body adjust to motherhood and recover from the birthing process. A specially trained therapist will tailor the therapy to their client's needs. This involves positioning them to accommodate particular aches and pains and using gentle techniques.
The benefits of postnatal massage include reduced stress, better sleep and re-balanced hormones. It can also help to improve swelling, tackle any aches and pains and help with recovery and breastfeeding. New mothers can receive the treatment as soon as they feel ready.
The changes to the body that occur during pregnancy can cause pain and discomfort. A prenatal massage is designed to ease stress, and any aches and pains associated with pregnancy. This is to help expectant mothers to feel more relaxed and prepared for childbirth.
Prenatal massage is a gentle therapy. A specially trained therapist will use light, rhythmic techniques that are tailored to a woman's needs and current stage of pregnancy. Pillows and a cut out massage table will be used to comfortably position a woman's pregnant body.
Remedial massage is effective for preventing and treating muscle injuries and pain. It involves using deep tissue techniques to remove blockages and damaged cells. This helps to reduce recovery time and encourage healing.
Remedial massage can also be used to remove scar tissue from old injuries, which reduces the chances of a repeat injury. It is most commonly used to treat back pain as it increases blood supply to soft tissue.
Physical activity can lead to the build-up of stress and tension in the body's tissues. Sports massage is designed to help prevent and treat injuries that can occur as a result of overexertion or poor training exercises.
Sports massage therapists will use a range of deep and intense techniques to restore mobility to an injured muscle tissue. Stretching, compression, toning and trigger point response techniques similar to acupressure may be used. Those who seek out sports massage will find it can assist them through all stages of training. It can also provide recovery and prevention before and after competitions.
Sports massage can also benefit individuals who don’t play sport. It is particularly helpful for those who are experiencing muscle pain and tension as a result of stress. The therapy is thought to improve circulation, boost lymphatic flow and help flush out metabolic waste.
Originating in the 1700s, the Swedish massage is considered to be one of the first types of massage to be developed. Over the years it has evolved into a popular therapy, known for its five core techniques. These are:
- Effleurage - Long gliding strokes.
- Petrissage - Lifting and kneading the muscles.
- Friction: Firm - Deep circular rubbing movements.
- Tapotement - Brisk tapping or percussive movements.
- Vibration - Rapidly shaking or vibrating specific muscles.
The aim of Swedish massage is to increase the body's absorption of oxygen, which helps the body to rejuvenate. It also contributes to the detoxification process, which speeds up the rate at which cells eliminate waste. This process involves flushing lactic acid, uric acid and other waste from the tissues.
Swedish massage helps stimulate the skin and nervous system, and exercises the ligaments and tendons to keep them supple. The entire process is very relaxing and is championed for its ability to reduce both emotional and physical stress.
Other types of massage
Other therapies that are popular healing and body re-balancing treatments are:
What training and qualifications does a massage therapist need?
Massage therapy practitioners can provide therapeutic massage to support health and well-being. In some parts of the UK local authorities require massage therapy practitioners to obtain a license to practice. In general, however, there is very little legislation to regulate the profession.
As a result, various professional organisations have been established to take on the role of voluntary regulation. Massage therapists can choose to register with these organisations and become accredited. In order to do so they must meet certain requirements that have been set by the organisation. They must also agree to comply with a specific code of ethics and complaints procedure.
Though the requirements set will differ from one organisation to the other, generally they will involve a high standard of training and experience.
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