[MASSAGE THERAPY] What Is It?

What Is It?

Massage is the manipulation of the soft-tissues of the body. It helps to ease stress and muscular tension, relieve pain from injuries, and speed healing from certain acute and chronic conditions. Today millions of people worldwide visit massage therapists as a form of regular health-care maintenance.


The practice of massage has been used for thousands of years. As early as 2700 B.C., the Chinese text, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, recommended that “breathing exercises, massage of the skin and flesh, and exercises of the hands and feet” should be used to treat paralysis, chills, and fever. In 400 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the necessity for all physicians to use rubbing as a remedy, particularly to treat sports and war injuries. Ancient records from Japan also refer to massage therapy, and the technique is known to have been used by other cultures as well, including the Egyptians, Romans, and Arabs.

The roots of modern, science-based massage therapy begin with Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839), a Swedish fencing master and gymnastics instructor who developed a therapeutic system that included both massage and exercise. In 1813, Ling established the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute to make his methods available to the public. At the time, Ling’s program included what he called “medical gymnastics” and “Swedish movement cure.” Later the combination of the two came to be known as Swedish massage.

After studying in Sweden in the 1850s, two physician brothers, George and Charles Taylor of New York City, introduced massage therapy to the U.S. The technique gradually gained credence and was widely used by doctors until the early 1900s. But as biomedicine and new “high tech” equipment came into play, physicians lost interest in this labor-intensive therapy. A small number of massage therapists carried on the tradition until the 1970s, when a revitalized interest in alternative medicine sparked a demand for this healing technique.

Today there are some 80 different types of massage and related forms of bodywork. These techniques are generally organized into five broad categories:


-Traditional European massage.

his includes methods based on conventional Western concepts of anatomy and physiology. Five soft-tissue manipulation techniques are typically used: effleurage (long, gliding strokes); petrissage (kneading and compression strokes); friction (deep circular rubbing); tapotement (percussion tapping); and vibration (very fine, rapid shaking movements). Swedish massage, the most widely employed massage technique in the world today, is the primary example of traditional European massage.

-Contemporary Western massage.

Also based on modern concepts of anatomy, this category includes a wide variety of manipulative techniques that go beyond the original framework of Swedish massage. These include neuromuscular massage, (a form of deep massage that is intended to reach the connective tissues, tendons, ligaments, and nerves, and release knots of tension called trigger points); sports massage (a combination of Swedish massage and deep tissue massage that deals specifically with the effects of athletic performance on the body); myotherapy (a specialized form of muscle massage and stretching that uses deep manual pressure to release trigger points)


-Structural realignment and movement integration. These techniques place an emphasis on body structure and movement. The methods organize and integrate the body in relationship to gravity through manipulation of the soft tissues and/or through correcting inappropriate patterns of movement. Examples include:

Hellerwork, Rolfing, Feldenkrais,and the Alexander technique.


-Oriental massage. Based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, Oriental massage techniques assess and restore the vital energy that is believed to flow through invisible channels in the human body. These methods include acupressure and Shiatsu.


-Energy-based methods:

These techniques, which are not founded in traditional Chinese medicine, are intended to affect the energy field that is believed to surround and infuse the human body. This is accomplished either by applying pressure and/or manipulation to the physical body, or by the passage or placement of the hands in or through the energy field. Examples of energy methods include polarity therapy, therapeutic touch, and Reiki.

Many massage practitioners use a combination of these methods, depending on what the client needs at the time. For more information on different massage techniques, see the individual entries in the WholeHealthMD Reference Library.

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