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massage therapy

Alternative Names 
soft tissue energy therapy

Massage therapy manipulates the soft tissues of the body to normalise the tissue. The massage therapist uses a systematic application of pressure and movement on the soft tissues of the body. Massage therapy is used:
  • to reduce stress and pain
  • to aid recovery from medical or surgical procedures
  • to provide relaxation
  • to soothe tired and sore muscles
  • to increase circulation of blood and flow of lymph in the body
Massage is often recommended as part of a treatment plan for sports injuries, repetitive stress disorders, chronic pain, and anxiety.

What is the information for this topic? 
There are many different specialised massage techniques commonly used. These include:
  • Swedish massage
  • Rolfing
  • Heller work
  • shiatsu
Combinations of these techniques are also used.

Massage therapists move the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments and the membrane, called fascia, that surrounds the muscles. This is done to promote the flow of blood and lymph. It also serves to relieve tension, stimulate nerves, and keep the muscles elastic and easy to move.

Moving lymph fluid is important because lymph carries waste from the tissues. The lymph does not circulate. Instead it relies in part on muscle contraction to keep it moving. That is why massaging the muscles aids the flow of lymph through the body. Massage also moves the blood and increases its oxygen capacity.

Massage can both soothe and stimulate the nervous system. Different techniques are chosen to achieve different effects. Massage can also speed recovery from the fatigue that often follows exercise. This is why many athletes use massage as part of their training plan.

Massage can be combined with aromatherapy by using scented oils. Oils are commonly used to make the therapists hands move more easily across the skin. The scents from the oils are believed by some to have their own therapeutic effects. Massage may also be combined with meditation or other relaxation therapy. Some massage therapists play relaxing music. The massage therapist will work with the person to provide the type of experience that will be the most beneficial. Individuals can discuss their preferences regarding music, types of oils and combination therapies with the massage therapist.

The massage is usually done on a padded massage table. The person's body is covered with a sheet or a blanket. Only the part that is actively being worked on is exposed at any given time. The person needs to take off only those clothes he or she feels comfortable removing. A massage will generally last for one hour.

Massage therapists may combine different techniques. Any type of massage therapy will include pressing, stroking, or kneading the muscles of the body. Techniques may include, but are not limited to:
  • effleurage. This is a slow, gliding stroke using the whole hand. It gradually builds pressure in a movement that goes towards the heart.
  • petrissage. This is a kneading, pressing, or rolling movement in which the massage therapist alternates between tightening and loosening his or her grasp.
  • friction. This is a steady pressure or tight circular pressure across the muscle fibres. This movement is commonly used around joints.
  • percussion. These are drumming movements that are usually done on large areas of the body like the back. The cupping of the hand, chopping movements, or clapping on the body is done rapidly over the body.
  • vibration. These are rapid movements that shake the muscles back and forth. Sometimes an electric vibrator is used to accomplish this movement.
These techniques form the basis of Swedish massage, which is the most common type of massage used today. The massage therapist may include other types of movement from other disciplines such as shiatsu, Heller work, and Rolfing.

There are also many other types of bodywork that include massage as part of the discipline. Deep tissue massage uses slow strokes and deep pressure on painful parts of the body. Sports massage is used to assist training, prevent injury, and to treat sprains, strains and sore tendons. Manual lymph drainage stimulates the lymph system. This can relieve some of the swelling that follows some surgical or radiation treatments. A doctor can determine if massage therapy might be helpful after surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Massage therapy may have to be avoided if a person:
  • is pregnant
  • has swelling in one area of the body
  • has eaten in the previous two hours, particularly for abdominal massage
  • has just completed chemotherapy or radiation treatment
  • has an infectious skin disease or unhealed wound. This might include a broken bone, a bad sprain, or body bruises.
  • has phlebitis or varicose veins
  • has a previous history of physical abuse or sexual abuse or finds hands-on therapies uncomfortable
A precise diagnosis of the clinical problem is required before treatment begins.

Although some massage strokes may be somewhat uncomfortable, a person having a massage should generally feel good. If pain or discomfort persists, the massage can be stopped.

Author: Terry Mason, MPH
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 16/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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