Whether you are trying to recover from an injury or you simply want to relieve stress, massage offers endless benefits. So, which type of massage do you need? Swedish? Deep tissue? Sports massage?
The sheer number of options can be overwhelming, especially when you are most concerned about therapeutic benefits. There are more than 200 massage types and techniques, each addressing different needs with unique benefits. What may work great for one person will not necessarily work for you.
Here are seven of the most popular types of massage, including what they entail and who they are designed for. You’re bound to discover the right massage technique to fit your needs and level of comfort.
1. Swedish Massage
Swedish massage is by far the most common and well-known type of massage. It’s also one of the most versatile techniques. Unlike the energy-centric massage techniques common in Asian massage, Swedish massage is based on anatomical and physiological principles of the West.
For a Swedish massage, you will disrobe to your level of comfort and lie on a massage table while covered with a towel. The typical Swedish massage uses oil or lotion with a massage therapist making broad stroke before transitioning to specific strokes for problem areas.
Swedish massage uses five basic strokes and movements:
- Passive joint movements
- Tapping and vibration
- Long, smooth strokes in the direction of your heart
- Deep circular movements
These strokes and techniques warm up the muscles, release tension, and gently break up muscle knots and adhesions. The purpose of Swedish massage is relieving muscle soreness and tension. After a Swedish full-body massage, you will feel both energized and relaxed.
Swedish massage isn’t just one of the most popular types of massage; it’s also one of the most studied. According to one recent study, a one-hour Swedish massage session can reduce the levels of a hormone that regulates blood pressure and may affect the immune system.
Who it’s best for:
Swedish massage therapy is the ideal solution if you want a relaxing and gentle massage or you have never had a massage before. Because it can be tailored to your individual needs, you will see Swedish massage offered at spas, clinics, gyms, and wellness centers. It’s great for whole-body relaxation but it can also help you recover from an injury. It’s also a good choice if you’re sensitive to touch and want a pain-free massage.
2. Deep Tissue Massage
After Swedish massage, the most familiar form of massage is the deep tissue massage. These two massage techniques share a lot in common, using many of the same techniques with the same intended uses. There are a few differences between Swedish and deep tissue massage, though.
Deep tissue massage uses more pressure than Swedish. It isn’t as gentle because it targets the inner layers of fascia (connective tissue), tendons, and muscles. A deep tissue massage therapist uses the same kneading movements and long strokes as in Swedish massage but there is a greater amount of pressure.
A deep tissue massage begins with discussing any problem areas with your therapist. Depending on your needs, the massage can be full-body or focused on a particular area. You will disrobe to your level of comfort and lie on a massage table under a sheet.
The massage begins with a gentle relaxation massage to warm up the muscles. The therapist then uses techniques like kneading and long strokes to work deep into problem areas. Your massage therapist may use their palms, knuckles, fingertips, and even their elbows as the pressure increases.
Because deep tissue massage uses more pressure than a Swedish massage, it’s important to be open with the therapist about the level of discomfort you feel. Some areas of the massage can be uncomfortable. The next day, you will likely have some muscle soreness.
Who it’s best for:
Deep tissue massage is a good choice if you are already familiar with massage and you are comfortable with more pressure than a Swedish massage. Deep tissue massage is also well-suited for athletes, people with chronic pain, and people recovering from an injury.
3. Hot Stone Massage
Popular in spas across the world, hot stone massage uses heated stones instead of a therapist’s hands to ease muscle tension and promote relaxation. Hot stone massage is similar to Swedish massage in the technique and intention.
During a hot stone massage, your therapist will place heated stones on various areas of your entire body. A heated stone may also be held by the therapist while massaging your muscles with gentle pressure and traditional Swedish massage techniques.
This form of massage uses basalt river rocks because they are very smooth and great at retaining heat. You don’t need to worry about burns; the therapist will heat the stones in a professional stone heater to 110 to 130 degrees F which is very hot but not to the point of causing injury.
Where the stones will be placed depends on where you hold muscle tension. Stones are generally placed along the sides of your spine, the palms of your hands, and on your feet, abdomen, and legs.
Hot stone massage is very relaxing but also invigorating thanks to the heat of the stones that prevents you from drifting off. The idea of the hot stones is the heat helps release tension in the muscles so they can be worked more effectively by the therapist.
Who it’s best for:
Hot stone massage is a versatile massage option. It’s a good choice for a first massage or as an alternative to Swedish massage for relaxation, alleviating muscle pain, and relieving stress and tension.
4. Shiatsu Massage
Shiatsu massage is a Japanese massage technique designed to promote relaxation, tension relief, and calm. This whole-body massage uses a rhythmic or pulsing pressure unlike deep tissue and Swedish massage which use long, smooth strokes and circular motions.
Shiatsu literally means “finger pressure.” During a Shiatsu massage, the therapist will use their fingers, thumbs, and palms to apply careful pressure to specific areas of the body. This practice is based on traditional Chinese medicine which views health issues as an imbalance of the life force.
Shiatsu has evolved over the years and there are now many styles. Some types of Shiatsu massage focus on acupressure points of the body while others emphasize general body work or pathways of energy that influence the life force. These different styles include Zen, healing, Namikoshi, movement, and Hara Shiatsu.
Who it’s best for:
Shiatsu massage is a good choice if you aren’t comfortable with a deep massage and are mostly interested in relaxation. It’s also an excellent choice for practitioners of Chinese medicine or anyone interested in improving their overall health.
5. Thai Massage
Thai massage is very different than any other form of massage, combining passive stretches and massage with assisted yoga. Unlike a traditional massage that may require disrobing, lying on a massage table, and massage oils, Thai massage is done while fully clothed on a padded floor mat.
During a Thai massage, your therapist will use their hands, legs, knees, and feet to move your body into a series of yoga-like poses and stretches while applying acupressure and deep muscle compression.
This form of massage also uses energy work that is designed to treat energy imbalances in the body by correcting deficiencies and blockages in the energy flow.
Thai massage isn’t the relaxing and soothing experience you will enjoy with a Swedish massage. While one study showed that Swedish massage improves sleep and relaxation, Thai massage is more likely to boost mental stimulation and energy. Applying pressure to muscle knots can be painful and some poses may be a bit uncomfortable so it’s important to communicate with your therapist if you experience any pain.
Who it’s best for:
If you want something that goes beyond traditional massage, Thai massage is worth trying. This massage technique can be very powerful and great for relieving stiffness. Thai massage is very energizing and helps improve flexibility and range of motion while relieving tension. It’s also called the “lazy person’s yoga” and offers a great introduction to yoga principles for a beginner.
6. Sports Massage
Sports massage is a specialized form of therapeutic massage designed to improve athletic performance, improve flexibility, and prevent or treat sports-related injuries. Unlike some forms of massage, sports massage goes beyond pain relief to help the body recover from injuries.
In general, sports massage focuses on overused or stressed areas of the body and soft tissue injuries. The specifics of a sports massage technique will be tailored to your sport of choice and any injuries you may have.
Some athletes turn to sports massage to improve pre-game preparation or enhance performance while others use it to reduce recovery time after an event. The research backs up both uses of massage in sports.
One study found that sports massage may boost muscle regeneration by reducing inflammation after intense exercise. The study found that massage after exercise reduced the rate of scar tissue and boosted the amount of new blood vessels formed in massaged muscles.
Along with reducing muscle fatigue and stiffness, sports massage can improve range of motion and flexibility. A 30-second massage alone was found to increase hip flexion range of motion by more than 7%.
Who it’s best for:
Sports massage can be beneficial for anyone who participates in repetitive sports such as cyclists, runners, weightlifters, soccer players, and more. While professional athletes often rely on sports massage, it can also be beneficial for “weekend warriors” who are more likely to push themselves to the point of injury after many days of inactivity.
Sports massage can be used to help train and reduce the risk of injury before an event or to speed recovery after an event. If you’re new to massage, book your treatment two days or more before your event to reduce the risk of event-day soreness.
7. Trigger Point Massage
Trigger points are tight areas in the muscle tissue that cause referred pain in other areas of the body. A trigger point in your back may cause pain in your neck, for example. Every muscle has possible trigger points that can become activated and tight due to inflammation, infection, overuse, trauma, or even electrolyte imbalance.
Trigger point massage is designed to release these constricted areas to relieve pain. During a session, a massage therapist will identify trigger points by palpation then apply sustained compression for about 60 seconds. While this can be uncomfortable, the therapist will position the muscle in a way that minimizes discomfort.
Who it’s best for:
Trigger point massage is a great option if you are suffering with chronic pain, recovering from an injury, or you have a specific issue you are trying to address. Trigger point therapy can help treat many types of pain, including pain in the neck, back, shoulder, knee, and sciatica. It’s typically used to treat chronic pain patterns by breaking the pain cycle and addressing the root of the pain.
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