For centuries, medical practitioners have relied on their hands. The laying on of hands has been accepted by most cultures as a powerful healing tool. In our current culture, massage therapy is one form.
Massage therapy is the use of hands, arms or even feet to manipulate soft body tissue. It involves holding, moving and applying pressure to the body. The massage style can range from shallow with a light touch to deep, firm touch; from a tapping on the skin to a slow and steady pushing pressure on the muscles. Many massage therapists combine several techniques. The most common types of massage are:
- Swedish massage. This involves long strokes, kneading and friction techniques on the more superficial layers of the muscles. It is combined with movements of the joints. It is one of the most common forms of massage in the United States.
- Deep tissue. This massage focuses on the deeper layers of muscle tissue to release tension. It uses slow strokes and deep finger pressure.
- Shiatsu and acupressure. This Asian-based system of finger pressure treats special points along acupuncture meridians. The theory is that energy blocked along this path can cause physical discomfort.
- Reflexology. This method targets points in the hands and feet thought to be linked to specific areas of the body. It is also called zone therapy.
- Trigger point therapy. Concentrated finger pressure is applied on painful, irritated areas to relieve muscle spasm and pain. It is also called myotherapy or neuromuscular therapy.
- Sports massage. This focuses on muscle systems that are used in a specific sport. This massage is applied to painful, tired muscles to decrease pain and increase flexibility.
What to expect
A massage of the shoulders, neck and back can be done while you are fully clothed and sitting in a massage chair. Or you may lie on a padded massage table for a head-to-toe massage.
Sessions can run 15 to 30 minutes for a chair massage or from 30 minutes to 90 minutes for a table massage. The therapist may begin by asking about your health history and stress level, and if any part of your body is especially sensitive or needs more attention.
You will be asked to remove as much clothing as you are comfortable with. For modesty and comfort, a sheet is usually draped over your body. The therapist will fold it back when necessary to work on a body part. Often, the room is darkened and soft music is played.
The therapist usually uses a lotion or oil on the body to reduce friction during the massage. If you have allergies or sensitivities to scents, let your therapist know before she or he begins. It is important to also let the therapist know if you have any discomfort during the massage or if the massage pressure is too light or too deep for you.
While some research supports the health benefits of massage, most information is gathered from personal or anecdotal experience. People who have had massage say they use it for a variety of reasons: relaxation, stress relief and healing, and to decrease muscle pain and anxiety.
Some believe massage helps relieve symptoms of some chronic diseases and cancer. A study of 1,290 cancer patients who received massage therapy found that pain, anxiety, fatigue and nausea fell by half in patients who received massage.
According to the American Massage Therapy Association, more than 30 million adults in the U.S. had at least one massage between July 2010 and July 2011. In 2012, a survey was done with 1,010 adults.Of those surveyed, 89 percent believe that massage can be effective in reducing pain. Half of those surveyed stated that their doctor had recommended or encouraged them to get a massage.
Some studies suggest that massage therapy:
- Lowers heart rate
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces anxiety
- Decreases depression
- Improves pain
- Relaxes muscles
More research is needed to prove these claims.
Do not use massage therapy to replace your regular medical care or as a reason to postpone seeing a doctor about a medical problem.
Who should NOT get a massage?
If you have a medical condition and are unsure whether massage therapy would be appropriate for you, discuss your concerns with your doctor. Most people can benefit from massage. However, massage may not be appropriate if you have:
- Bleeding disorders or take blood-thinning medication
- Burns, open or healing wounds
- Blood clots
- Broken bones
- Severe osteoporosis
- An infection
Discuss the pros and cons of massage with your doctor, especially if you are pregnant or have cancer or unexplained pain.
Finding a massage therapist
For names of qualified massage therapists in your area, contact the American Massage Therapy Association or the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.
Expect to pay an average of $60 an hour. Some insurance — such as car insurance after a car accident — may cover massage therapy if a doctor prescribes it.
Created on 10/18/1999
Updated on 05/13/2013
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Massage therapy: An introduction.
- American Massage Therapy Association. Consumer survey fact sheets.
- American Massage Therapy Association. Types of massage.