Massage therapy is the scientific manipulation of the soft tissues of the body, consisting primarily of manual (hands-on) techniques such as applying fixed or movable pressure, holding, and moving muscles and body tissues. While massage therapy is applied primarily with the hands, sometimes the forearms or elbows are used. These techniques affect the muscular, skeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, nervous, and other systems of the body. The basic philosophy of massage therapy embraces the concept of vis Medicatrix naturae , which means “aiding the ability of the body to heal itself.”
Touch is the fundamental medium of massage therapy. While massage can be described in terms of the type of techniques performed, touch is not used solely in a mechanistic way in massage therapy. Because massage usually involves applying touch with some degree of pressure and movement, the massage therapist must use touch with sensitivity in order to determine the optimal amount of pressure to use for each person
In practice, many massage therapists use more than one technique or method in their work and sometimes combine several. Effective massage therapists ascertain each person’s needs and then use the techniques that will best meet those needs.
Swedish massage is the most commonly used form of massage. It uses a system of long gliding strokes, kneading, and friction techniques on the more superficial layers of muscles, generally in the direction of blood flow toward the heart, and sometimes combined with active and passive movements of the joints. It is used to promote general relaxation, improve circulation and range of motion, and relieve muscle tension.
Deep tissue massage is used to release chronic patterns of muscular tension using slow strokes, direct pressure, or friction directed across the grain of the muscles. It is applied with greater pressure and to deeper layers of muscle than Swedish, which is why it is called deep tissue and is effective for chronic muscular tension.
Sports massage uses techniques that are similar to Swedish and deep tissue but are specially adapted to deal with the effects of athletic performance on the body and the needs of athletes regarding training, performing, and recovery from injury.
Neuromuscular massage is a form of deep massage that is applied to individual muscles. It is used primarily to release trigger points (intense knots of muscle tension that refer pain to other parts of the body) and also to increase blood flow. It is often used to reduce pain. Trigger point massage and myotherapy are similar forms.
Acupressure applies finger or thumb pressure to specific points located on the energy pathways or “meridians” in order to release blocked energy along these meridians that may be causing physical discomfort. The rebalance of energy flow releases tension and restores function of organs and muscles in the body. Shiatsu is a Japanese form of acupressure that applies these principles.
Generally, massage therapy is utilized to improve the flow of blood and lymph (fluid in lymph glands, part of immune system), to reduce muscular tension or flaccidity, to affect the nervous system through stimulation or sedation, and to enhance tissue healing. Therapeutic massage may be recommended for children and adults to deliver benefits such as the following:
- reducing muscle tension and stiffness
- relieving muscle spasms
- increasing joint and limb flexibility and range of motion
- increasing ease and efficiency of movement
- relieving points of tension and overall stress; inducing relaxation
- promoting deeper and easier breathing
- improving blood circulation and movement of lymph
- relieving tension-related headaches and eyestrain
- promoting faster healing of soft tissue injuries, such as pulled muscles and sprained ligaments
- reducing pain and swelling related to injuries
- reducing the formation of scar tissue following soft tissue injuries
- enhancing health and nourishment of skin
- improving posture by changing tension patterns that affect posture
- reducing emotional or physical stress and reducing anxiety
- promoting feelings of well-being
- increasing awareness of the mind-body connection and improving mental awareness and alertness generally