An Introduction to Massage

Massage has been an important staple of the healing arts for thousands of years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 370 BCE), sometimes referred to as “the father of Western medicine,” wrote that “physicians must be skilled in many things, and particularly in friction (massage).”

Even before Hippocrates, a hieroglyphic panel in Egypt’s Tomb of Akmanthor, “the Tomb of the Physician” (2330 BCE), depicts what appears to be two men receiving massage—or possibly a form of reflexology—on their hands and feet. 

The Greek poet Homer makes reference to massage in both The Illiad and The Odyssey, believed to have been written around 800 BCE.

Bian Que, regarded as China’s earliest known physician, used massage for medical purposes around 700 BCE.

From antiquity to modern times, people have sought out massage as a way to feel better in their bodies and help facilitate healing for a variety of conditions.

What is massage?

Massage is the targeted manipulation of the body’s soft tissue through techniques such as kneading, rubbing, tapping, and stroking, either by hand or with the aid of massage tools. Depending on the style of massage, it can be done on a table, in a chair, on the floor, or even in water.

What are the benefits of massage?

The benefits of massage can range from faster recovery from specific injuries to a generalized sense of relaxation and well-being. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, research has shown that massage can assist in the treatment of back pain, fibromyalgia, post-operative pain, and arthritis, as well as help relieve the pain of cancer patients. 

In addition to pain relief, the Mayo Clinic reports that the benefits of massage can include the following:

  • stress reduction
  • improvement in circulation
  • lowering of heart rate and blood pressure
  • improved immune function

The Mayo Clinic also states that some studies have shown massage may be helpful for anxiety, digestive disorders, stress-related insomnia, headaches, and more.

What are some types of massage?

Swedish massage is one of the more popular types of massage. It involves several techniques, such as soft, gliding strokes known as effleurage, which help loosen knots in muscles and other soft tissues; a deep, kneading motion called petrissage, which helps stretch muscles and promotes healthy blood circulation; focused tapping, or tapotement, which can lead to greater endorphin production and the relaxation of tense muscles and other soft tissue; friction, which consists of using the thumbs or fingers in tight, often circular patterns in smaller areas; and vibration, which also helps the body relax.

Shiatsu, another popular method of massage, has its origins in Japan and translates as “finger pressure.” Shiatsu makes use of direct pressure from the fingers, hands, and palms and utilizes principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, including energy meridians and acupressure points, and the concept of qi, or life energy.

Ashiatsu massage, also known as barefoot massage, is delivered via the massage therapist’s feet. The therapist may make use of bars to help with balance while standing above the recipient on a table or floormat. The advantage of this massage is that the foot covers a wider area than the hands, resulting in a wider area of compression and release, while also giving the therapist the ability to apply more direct pressure from angles not achievable when using the hands. 

Chair massage is given to someone who is seated, usually in a specialized chair that allows the massage therapist full access to the back as the recipient rests in a quasi-kneeling position while leaning forward at a slight angle. In the late twentieth century, chair massage became increasingly popular at health food stores, malls, conventions, festivals, and even in some offices. Chair massage offers people a way to unwind, de-stress, and release tension while remaining fully clothed, and it can be done in almost any setting where the therapist has adequate room to navigate around the chair.

Other forms of massage include hot stone massage, which involves the therapist placing heated stones at various points on the body; aromatherapy massage, which integrates essential oils into the bodywork; deep tissue massage, which uses more pressure than other styles; hydrotherapy massage, in which the therapist applies stretches and massage techniques to the recipient while both are in a shallow pool of water; and prenatal massage, a style of massage designed to help alleviate body aches and muscle tension that can accompany pregnancy.

How often should I get a massage?

There are no firm guidelines on how often someone should receive a massage, but for those following medical advice, a specific number of treatments are suggested at the outset, with periodic re-evaluations as needed. For those choosing massage as a complementary therapy or self-care practice, the frequency of sessions varies based on the individual’s circumstances and needs. 

Can I do a massage on myself? 

While not always as relaxing and certainly not as passive as receiving a massage from someone else, self-massage is another option. In addition to using your own hands, massage devices ranging from the floor-based for feet to the chair-compatible for backs can also be effective. Additionally, handheld mechanical massagers and so-called “massage guns” allow targeted access to specific parts of the body. 

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