Massage Methodologies 101


What flavor massage would treat you best? Like a smorgasbord full of delectable treats, it can be a bit confusing for people with all of the different massage techniques advertised to select the proper bodywork provider for their particular needs. Some clients seek nothing but 60-90 minutes of utter relaxation, while most want a combination of that and therapeutic methods to help with ailments causing discomfort.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is largely credited to early 19th century Swedish physiologist and gymnastics instructor Pehr Henrick Ling, who created a system of gymnastics and exercises, followed with stretches and massage, to treat injury and disease. His massage and motion procedures were noted to improve circulation, relieve muscle tension, improve range of motion and promote relaxation. Later a Dutch physician names Johann Mezger further publicized and expanded the massage component of Ling’s work. As we know it today, “Swedish” massage refers to a feel-good relaxing therapeutic massage treatment in its most basic sense, targeting the more superficial muscular layers that endure a lot of the daily wear and tear of everyday life. Most practitioners learn Swedish first as a foundation, adding more techniques to their trade with time. Swedish massage includes delicious long strokes parallel with the muscle fibers called “effleurage”, kneading or “petrissage”, cross-fiber friction, compression, and perhaps some light percussive action called “tapotement” and vibration (interestingly, French terms!). These techniques soothingly provide relief and increased circulation for tired achy muscles in general.

Deep Tissue Massage

“Deep tissue” massage uses some of the same strokes as Swedish, but with more spice! It is a stronger and more targeted approach for relieving chronic areas of tension, scar tissue, tendon injuries and deeper layers of muscle which are bound together causing pain, inhibited circulation, inflammation or a loss in range of motion. This method relies on slow heavy strokes, strong cross-fiber friction, kneading, and “stripping”: deep gliding strokes along the grain of the muscle to help break up adhesions between muscle fibers. Practitioners might use their elbows or forearms to provide sustained pressure to adhesions, incorporating “trigger point therapy” with focused intention on knots. While often extremely effective, it’s not for everyone, deeper is not necessarily better, and should not be taken lightly! It can leave clients feeling sore for a day or two, and is never recommended for people with blood clots, due to the risk that they dislodge. Other contraindications include osteoporosis, bruised areas, recent surgery, pregnancy, fragile bones or skin, and recent injuries.

Sports Massage

Sports massage is often confused with deep tissue massage, but is essentially quite different. I believe spas often list “Sports Massage” on their menu as a way to appeal to men’s appetites who are sore from physical activity, as so many of us are! Pure sports massage is targeted toward athletic performance, and is categorized as “event” (pre/inter/post-event), “maintenance”, and “rehabilitative” massage. Event massage is brief and focuses on increasing circulation and flexibility to musculature, using brisk movements and moderate to light pressure to hard-working muscle groups in general, with jostling, light vibration and fast sweeping strokes. Maintenance and rehab massage can be more customized to what the athlete needs in particular, to prepare for the next event, support the athlete’s goals, prevent injury, and enhance recovery from past injuries or events.

Myofascial Release (MFR) & Structural Integration (SI)

Myofascial release (MFR), and Structural Integration(SI), or Rolfing, are individually unique techniques that deal with fascia and postural alignment issues, releasing “connective tissues” that have slowly pulled the bones and joints out of proper alignment over time. All of our muscles are surrounded by fascia, collagen-rich tissue similar to the white skin around an orange segment. This fascia surrounds our muscles, separating them from one another, and concentrates into dense connective tissue adhering to bones, called tendons. Envision eating a chicken drumstick; the impenetrable chewy rubbery parts are tendons, or dense fascial connections. Like a continuous web, fascia is an essential component of the soft tissue musculoskeletal system, and becomes bound, adhered, shortened, strained and stressed. I have read that up to 90% of what we perceive to be “muscular” pain can be attributed to connective tissue issues. MFR is not Rolfing (SI), but Rolfing is a form of MFR. In a nutshell, MFR is often used by physical therapists and trained massage therapists, and uses light slow sustained pressure to “melt” fascial restrictions, slowly elongating dense connective tissue. Rolfing, named after its founder Dr. Ida Rolf (who called her method Structural Integration) requires very specific training, and seeks to strategically release structures that prevent correct movements and realign the whole body, using a recipe of ten manipulation sessions to realign the body with its natural field of gravity.

A plethora of other delectable bodywork modalities exist, including Thai, lymph, active release and refloxology, just to name a few, and will be addressed in my next article, but this should give the reader enough to digest for now. Ideally, a perfect massage session should be customized, and provide whatever flavors the client’s body requires, which the practitioner is able to provide to help them feel relaxed, rejuvenated and on their way to recovery.