Massage Primer

The practice of various massage techniques can be traced though human history and nearly every culture. Artwork and literature from many civilizations show that nearly all ancient cultures practiced massage in some form. This is shown in cave drawings by out prehistoric ancestors, ancient Chinese books dating back as far as 3000 B.C., medical textbooks by Greek and Roman physicians written in the millennia preceding Christ, Indian and Hindu tradition and literature dating back over three thousand years.

The most consistent definition of massage is “a manual therapy that involves manipulation of the soft or superficial tissues of the human body with the hands, arms, elbows or feet”. The effects of massage therapy are both physiological and psychological in nature and can vary widely.

Some of the most commonly agreed-upon benefits include: increased muscle flexibility, reduction of muscle spasm, reduction of edema, pain reduction, increased local circulation, improved respiratory function and vital capacity of the lungs, reduced blood pressure, increased lymphatic flow, enhanced immune system function, reduction of scar tissue, decreased stress and anxiety levels, and increased sense of well-being and relaxation.

While massage can help heal damaged nerve tissue, it has not been shown to have benefit on permanent nerve lesions or to prevent atrophy in the denervated tissue. Massage will not directly decrease cellulite, though it can mask the appearance of “orange-peel” skin. Furthermore, there is no evidence that massage can directly increase muscle tone or bulk.

Some conditions for which massage may be helpful are: muscle spasm, strains, sprains, edema, headaches, pain in the TMJ area, whiplash, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, bursitis, frozen shoulder, tennis and golfer’s elbow, scoliosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, and Bell’s Palsy.

There are many different types of massage styles and techniques that seek to relax or alleviate certain health concerns.

Swedish massage is what most people in Western society think of when they hear the word “massage.” It is the kind of massage that we’ve seen James Bond receive. Swedish massage most often involves the use of oils or lotions together with gliding and kneading strokes.
In a Hot Stone treatment, the therapist incorporates smooth hot stones into the massage.

Some non-Swedish massage techniques that employ little or no lubricant include:

  • Craniosacral Therapy focuses on health enhancement by using light touch to balance movement in the craniosacral system (cranium, spine, sacrum, meninges, spinal fluid).
  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) uses slow, repetitive, rhythmic strokes to increase lymph flow and decrease edema, decrease pain perception and calm the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Medical Massage is directed by a physician and uses several forms of manual therapy to assist in rehabilitation of a patient with a specific complaint.
  • Myofascial Release involves techniques that include traction, range of motion, and sustained pressure to release adhesions and decrease pain.
  • Neuromuscular Therapy combines techniques that lengthen shortened tissues with remedial exercises in an effort to reduce pain and hypertonicity in the muscles.
  • Reflexology seeks to achieve health throughout the body by massaging “reflex zones” on the feet and hands that correspond with organs and body areas.
  • Rolfing Structural Integration seeks to help a person achieve better posture, alignment and balance by addressing the fascia and other connective tissue.
  • Shiatsu (Japanese finger pressure) often takes place on a floor mat with the therapist using thumbs to apply pressure along energy pathways.
  • Visceral Manipulation seeks to restore motion and function to affected internal organs.

Other types of bodywork include:

  • Aromatherapy incorporates the use of essential oils for therapeutic purposes and may be added to any type of treatment.
  • Reiki involves a gentle laying on of hands to promote spiritual balance and wellness.
  • Applied Kinesiology (Touch For Health) uses muscle strength tests and a range of non-invasive correction techniques to balance the body’s energies.

Possibly the most important factor to have in mind when looking for a massage therapist is whether or not you are comfortable with him or her. If you do not trust and feel comfortable with your therapist, it is likely that you will neither enjoy your massage nor receive much benefit. This, together with the quality of the therapist’s work, is much more important than finding the lowest rate.

If you want to receive a specific type of massage, try to find someone who specializes in that type of massage. Just remember: there are as many different styles of massage as there are individuals, so a deep-tissue massage by Therapist A may be very different from a deep-tissue massage by Therapist B.

Ask friends if they have a favorite therapist. Nevertheless, one person may absolutely love the massages that Therapist A gives, while another person doesn’t. Likes and dislikes are highly subjective. If you’ve received massage before and not like it, you may find that you like a different type of massage or massage by another therapist.

Therapists should not take it personally if you don’t like their work. If there is something you don’t like about the session (i.e. pressure, temp, cleanliness – ANYTHING) tell the therapist immediately; this may be the only way he or she will know.

Massage therapy is a licensed profession in the states of Tennessee and Virginia, requiring 500 hours of classroom education. Licensing standards vary widely by state and province, with some requiring 3000 hours of training and others having no educational requirements at all!

Undoubtedly, massage therapy can be highly beneficial for the body and soul.

Recommended reading: “Bodywork” by Thomas Claire

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