What Is Massage Therapy?

  • Mariam Atique RPh. , Pharm D, University of Sargodha, Pakistan
  • Regina Lopes Senior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

Do you usually feel uncomfortable due to stiff and rigid muscles? If yes, then try massage therapy. Massages are usually misunderstood as a luxury to pamper yourself or as a part of a spa. But that's not true. Massages have several therapeutic uses and are used to treat various conditions.

As per Chinese records, massages are one of the oldest healing arts, dating back 3000 years. Many ancient cultures used massages for pain relief and treatment purposes.

Massage, in its true sense, is the art of healing by kneading and rubbing the body. When licensed, trained professionals perform massage, it becomes a therapeutic massage that can treat numerous conditions. The trained massage therapist applies different oils on the skin to manage pain and stress and then rubs the body with soft and firm pressure.

The logic behind "why people feel better after massage" is that massages improve blood flow to the knotted muscles and enhance the lymphatic system's circulation. The lymphatic system is crucial in distributing infection-fighting white blood cells. Along with the ability to reduce nerve compression, massages also boost muscular relaxation. 

Massage therapy slows down your nervous system and promotes relaxation. It is a genuinely beneficial approach for releasing stress and tension, alleviating the symptoms, promoting healing, and supporting wellness. 

Types of massages

Massages are of various types. They differ from each other due to

  • Difference in technique
  • Materials and equipment used
  • Results you want to achieve

Some types of massage are thoroughly discussed below.

Swedish massage

Swedish massage is one of the most commonly practiced techniques among all the types available. Also called "Classical" or "therapeutic," Swedish massage is where the therapist applies gentle pressure with the hands to calm the nervous system. 

Swedish massage is designed to calm down your emotional stress. When your mental state and emotions soothe, it relaxes muscles.1 Swedish massage therapy reduces muscle tension, promotes relaxation and boosts energy levels.

During massage therapy, the trained therapist applies different oils on the body to apply the strokes softly and gently. The gentle strokes relax your mind and body. Different strokes which the therapist may use on your body are

  • Tapping
  • Shaking
  • Kneading muscles
  • Lifting muscles
  • Gliding strokes
  • Long, soft and firm pressure strokes

Applying the Swedish massage technique begins at the extremities, gradually moving inward towards the heart, contributing to the overall relaxation experienced during the massage therapy session. It improves circulation, lowers heart rate, and promotes healing.

Several studies have confirmed the effectiveness of Swedish massage. In a study conducted in 2013, 48 patients with multiple sclerosis were randomly divided into four groups labelled massage group, exercise group, a combination of both massage and exercise and control group. The massage group was given a Swedish massage. Each group was given 15 sessions of supervised intervention. The study concluded that the group which was given Swedish massage resulted in significantly more improvement in pain reduction.2 

Another study published in 2017, a systematic review of the previous studies, highlighted the importance of Swedish massage. The findings from the studies indicate several benefits observed across different scenarios. These benefits include enhanced nasal breathing and cleanliness in children, decreased lower-back pain for nurses, and improved adrenocortical function in infants. The study concluded that Swedish massage had shown beneficial results for most people and can be used as a therapy.3

Another study conducted in 2016 has proven the effectiveness of Swedish massage in reducing the anxiety of ICU patients.4 

Deep tissue massage

Deep tissue massage is the solution if you have muscle soreness, tightness and injury. It soothes chronic muscle pains. The massage therapist applies slow strokes and more substantial pressure on the affected muscles of the body to treat the painful, stiff muscle knots. 

In 2021, a study was conducted to determine the effects of DTM on pain and comfort after cesarean. The results showed a significant reduction in pain levels and a notable improvement in the comfort levels of women following the application of DTM post-caesarean.5

Another study concluded that healthy individuals experienced improvements in chest expendability and vital capacity after receiving deep tissue massage, accompanied by a decrease in FVC.6

Lymphatic drainage massage

Lymphatic Drainage Massage is also called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD). It is a gentle massage technique which promotes the circulation of lymphatic fluids throughout the body.

Lymph is a fluid rich in proteins. It flows through your body in lymph vessels. It filters out bacteria, viruses and wastes from the blood and collects these in lymph nodes.

A 2015 study concludes Lymphatic Drainage Massage is more effective in fibromyalgia patients than other massage styles, especially for alleviating stiffness depression and improving quality of life.7  

Another study in 2015 suggests that after an Orthopedic injury, it's essential for healthcare professionals to manage swelling (oedema) quickly to avoid additional harm and promote faster recovery, but standard methods like ice, compression, and elevation might not significantly improve the lymphatic system's function; whereas, a hands-on approach called manual lymphatic drainage could be more effective by gently aiding the lymphatic system in reducing swelling.8

Sports massage

Sports massage is not a particular technique but an application of different massages. This type of massage is usually given to sportspeople and athletes whose muscles get injured after repeated use. Sports massage usually focuses on the muscles used for that particular sport. 

A sports massage aids muscle recovery following intense physical activity or injury by increasing flexibility, relieving pain and muscle tension, and improving performance. 

A study published in 2019 also concludes that sports massage doesn't directly recover muscles but helps in improving flexibility and muscle soreness.9

Prenatal massage

Prenatal massage refers to massage therapy specifically designed for pregnant individuals. It is a type of massage tailored to address pregnant women's unique needs and considerations, focusing on their well-being and comfort during various stages of pregnancy.

Throughout pregnancy, significant changes occur in your body. Pregnancy massage can assist in coping with these changes by alleviating stress, reducing swelling in arms and legs, and easing muscle and joint discomfort. 

This type of massage can be especially beneficial when traditional medications and medical alternatives may be more restricted. Employing specially designed massage pillows, the therapist will guide you into a comfortable position for this tailored massage.

A recent study published in 2022 suggested that engaging in prenatal perineal massage may decrease the likelihood of perineal injury, reduce instances of lateral perineal resection, and lower the occurrence of long-term pain.10

Health benefits of massage

Massage therapy improves overall health and wellness. It promotes optimal body function. One of the crucial benefits of massage is that it relaxes the body. Massage therapy triggers the release of endorphins (the happy hormone). Endorphins reduce the release of stress hormones, promoting relaxation of the body's muscles.

Massage therapy offers a range of physical benefits that can significantly improve your overall well-being. Some of these are as follows:

  • Improves relaxation
  • Decreased muscle pain and tension
  • Promotes better circulation
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Stimulation of the lymphatic system
  • Lower heart rate
  • Supports immunity
  • Better and fast soft tissue recovery
  • Better skin tone
  • Improved joint mobility and flexibility

Many researches and studies support the use of massages as a complementary therapy to improve the quality of life of the patient, especially in conditions like

  • Anxiety
  • Lower back pain (both acute and chronic)
  • Stress
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Constipation
  • Digestive disorders
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Soft tissue injuries and strains
  • Sports injuries
  • Nerve pain
  • Life-threatening conditions like cancer

Avoid massage therapy if:

While massage therapy offers numerous benefits and carries minimal risks, it is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider if you have any of the following medical conditions.

  • Nerve injury
  • Blood clot
  • Bone fracture
  • High-risk pregnancy
  • Skin rashes, cuts, or any other skin-related ailments

Summary

Massage therapy offers a range of health benefits by promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and improving physical well-being. Various techniques, such as Swedish, deep tissue, lymphatic drainage, sports, and prenatal massages, target specific needs. Research supports the effectiveness of massage in conditions like fibromyalgia, anxiety, and orthopaedic injuries. Prenatal perineal massage may reduce perineal injury risk. The therapy enhances circulation, flexibility, and immune function while decreasing muscle pain and tension. However, caution is advised for specific conditions. Massage therapy is a valuable complementary approach for enhancing quality of life and addressing various health concerns.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the purpose of massage therapy?

Massage therapy (including myotherapy) is kneading or manipulating a person's muscles and other soft tissue to improve their well-being or health. It is a form of manual therapy that includes holding, moving, and applying pressure to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia.11

  • What is the concept of massage therapy?

Massage therapy manipulates the body's soft tissues for health management and well-being. Throughout human history, across diverse cultures in the East and West, massage has been a longstanding practice and one of the earliest methods people adopted to alleviate pain.12

  •  What is the explanation of massage therapy?

Massage therapy is a comprehensive approach in which massage therapists rub and knead skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The soft tissues include muscle, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, and skin.

The gentle massage on your body helps relieve stress, promotes relaxation and relieves muscular tension.13

References:

  1. Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2024 Jan 23]. Everything you need to know about massage therapy. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/benefits-of-massage
  2. Negahban H, Rezaie S, Goharpey S. Massage therapy and exercise therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis: a randomised controlled pilot study. Clin Rehabil. 2013 Dec;27(12):1126–36. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23828184/
  3. Barreto DM, Batista MVA. Swedish massage: a systematic review of its physical and psychological benefits. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017 Spring;31(2):16–20.
  4. https://www.bodyworkmovementtherapies.com/article/S1360-8592(16)30179-6/fulltext
  5. Güney E, Uçar T. Effects of deep tissue massage on pain and comfort after cesarean: A randomised controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice [Internet]. 2021 May 1 [cited 2024 Jan 24];43:101320. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744388121000190
  6. Trybulec B, Macul B, Kościńska K, Nawrot-Porąbka K, Barłowska M, Jagielski P. The effect of deep tissue massage on respiratory parameters in healthy subjects—A non-randomised pilot study. Heliyon [Internet]. 2023 Apr 1 [cited 2024 Jan 24];9(4):e15242. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405844023024490
  7. Yuan SLK, Matsutani LA, Marques AP. Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Man Ther. 2015 Apr;20(2):257–64.
  8. Majewski-Schrage T, Snyder K. The effectiveness of manual lymphatic drainage in patients with orthopaedic injuries. J Sport Rehabil. 2016 Feb;25(1):91–7.
  9. Davis HL, Alabed S, Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2020;6(1):e000614.
  10. Chen Q, Qiu X, Fu A, Han Y. Effect of prenatal perineal massage on postpartum perineal injury and complications: a meta-analysis. Comput Math Methods Med. 2022;2022:3315638.
  11. Services D of H & H. Massage [Internet]. [cited 2024 Jan 25]. Available from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/massage
  12. NCCIH [Internet]. [cited 2024 Jan 25]. Massage therapy: what you need to know. Available from: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/massage-therapy-what-you-need-to-know
  13. https://www.mayoclinic.org/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Mariam Atique

RPh. , Pharm D, University of Sargodha, Pakistan

Mariam is a registered pharmacist passionate about pursuing a career in medical writing. With a solid scientific background and experience in both hospital and community pharmacy, she loves to share her medical knowledge. She is currently interning as a medical writer at Klarity.

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