“Massage” comes from the Greek word meaning “to knead.” Sometimes the sole aim of massage is to help someone relax and improve their wellbeing. But often the goal is to relieve particular symptoms. These therapeutic massages are designed to relax your muscles, relieve pain, reduce stress, improve your metabolism, as well as influence the nervous system or specific organs. For example, massage may be used to treat problems like musculoskeletal disorders, neurological disorders or rheumatism, as well as symptoms that are often stress-related, such as headaches and sleep problems. Therapeutic massages can sometimes be painful, particularly when a lot of pressure is applied to the affected area. It is usually the skin, the connective tissue under the skin, or the muscles that are massaged.
The various kinds of massage differ in terms of the hand movements used, the parts of the body that are massaged, the amount of pressure applied, and the instruments and parts of the body that the massage therapist might use. Different massages are also based on different theories about how medical conditions develop and how the body works. In traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, it is thought that massage improves the flow of energy in the body.
It is not easy to keep track of all the different kinds of massage that are available nowadays. There are also lots of massage instruments used, from various oils and small massage balls to electric massage chairs. In the following we describe some of the most common forms of massage and different techniques. This list does not mean that the following kinds of massage all help in the treatment of symptoms and medical conditions.
Classic forms of massage
Classic (Swedish) massage
In Europe, when we talk about a “classic” massage we mean Swedish massage, which was developed in Stockholm around 1800. Classic massage involves directly massaging the skin and muscles in the affected area. Five different hand movements are used – stroking the skin, kneading, rubbing, tapping and vibrating.
The basic idea behind this approach is that pain is often caused by tense and tight muscles that affect blood circulation and irritate the nerves. The aim of classic massage is to relax the muscles and improve circulation in order to relieve the pain.
In this approach, ligaments, tendons and muscles are massaged, while at the same time they are also stretched and moved. The aim is to improve mobility and relieve pain. It is not unlike manual therapy or physiotherapy.
This therapy focuses on moving the joints in the body and the spine as well as massaging the muscles. Like manipulation, mobilization aims to improve mobility, and includes elements of both massage and physiotherapy. It is also used to relax your muscles and improve posture and positioning.
Connective tissue massage
Connective tissue connects the different structures of the body – such as organs, muscles and nerves – with each other. The aim of massaging connective tissue is to treat illnesses by relieving tension and positively influencing organs elsewhere in the body.
Deep tissue massage
Here it is mainly the deeper layers of muscle that are massaged. Strong pressure is applied to muscles and tendons using the fingers to try to relieve tension in the body. The more pressure that is applied, the more painful it can be.
Trigger point therapy
In trigger point therapy, pressure is specifically applied to certain “pain-triggering” points (trigger points). These points are oversensitive, tense muscle fibers which the treatment aims to relax.
The “periosteum” is the “bone covering” – a thin layer of tissue that covers all bones. It contains a lot of nerves and blood vessels. The periosteum is massaged with the aim of relieving certain forms of pain.
Massage techniques based on traditional Chinese medicine
Acupressure and similar kinds of massage
In acupressure, the therapist applies gentle to moderate pressure to certain points of the body using rotating movements with their fingertips. Acupressure comes from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is based on the idea that there are energy pathways (meridians) in the body through which life energy (chi) flows. Massaging certain points along these pathways is believed to affect people’s life energy.
Acupuncture massage is similar to acupuncture and acupressure in its approach. It involves stimulating points on the meridians using metal instruments. Although the name “acupuncture massage” may suggest otherwise, no needles are used in this approach.
Foot reflexology massage
In this treatment, gentle pressure is applied to the soles of the feet and the toes. The underlying idea is that certain points on the foot are connected to certain organs in the body via “reflex pathways” (not to be confused with nerve pathways). Massaging these points is believed to have a healing effect.
Vacuum cupping (“cup massage”)
This kind of massage involves creating a vacuum using a pump that is attached to a glass cup. The cup is placed on the skin, and the vacuum pulls the skin into the cup and massages it. If larger areas of the body have to be massaged, the suction cup is moved.
Other kinds of Asian massage
Thai massage involves stretching and pulling the limbs. The massage therapist applies strong, rhythmical pressure to the body with their hands, elbows, knees or feet. According to traditional beliefs, “energy lines” run through the body, connecting the various organs and parts of the body, and these can be manipulated in order to treat illnesses. The modern-day medical explanation is that Thai massage has an effect on muscles, bones and blood circulation.
Shiatsu is a Japanese form of trigger point massage therapy (see above).
Ayurveda is a traditional form of Indian medicine. Ayurvedic massage involves gently massaging the body using rhythmical stroking movements and herbal oils. According to the principles of Ayurveda, this has a cleansing and relaxing effect.
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Pschyrembel. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2017.
IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.
Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.
Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.
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