Massage Therapy
More Than Just a Back Rub

Massage therapy involves manipulating the patient's body with pressure (structured, unstructured, stationary and/or moving), tension, motion, or vibration done manually or with mechanical aids.

Target tissues may include muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, joints, or other connective tissue, as well as lymphatic vessels, and/or organs of the gastrointestinal system.

Dating back thousands of years, there are over eighty different massage applications. In all of them, therapists press, rub and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body, often varying pressure and movement.

They most often use their hands and fingers, but may use their elbows, forearm, and feet. The intent is to relax the soft tissues, increase blood and oxygen to the massaged areas, and decrease pain.


People use massage therapy as a complementary medicine for a variety of health related purposes, from treating specific diseases and conditions to general wellness.

At this time, scientist do not fully understand what changes occur in the body during massage, whether they influence health, and if so, how. But some aspects are better understood than others. For example:

  • It is known when certain forces are applied to the muscles, changes occur in the muscles (although those changes are not clearly understood or agree upon.
  • Also, it is known that massage typically enhances relaxation and reduces stress. Stress makes some diseases and conditions worse.
  • Massage therapy might provide stimulation that may help block pain signals sent to the brain (the "gate control theory" of pain reduction).
  • It might slow down the heart and breathing rate.
  • It Might stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the body, such as serotonin or endorphins>
  • It might cause beneficial mechanical changes in the body - for example, by preventing fibrosis or increasing the flow of lymph (a fluid that travels the body's lymphatic system and carries cells that fight disease).
  • It might improve sleep, which has a role in pain and healing.

Regardless, there does appear to be very few risks involved from massaging if used properly by a trained professional and it does feel just plain good.


A few popular examples of massage therapy are:

  • Swedish massage: The therapist uses long strokes, kneading, and friction on the muscles and moves the joints to aid flexibility.
  • Deep tissue massage: The therapist uses patterns of strokes and deep finger pressure on parts of the body where muscles are tight or knotted, focusing on layers of muscle deep under the skin.
  • Trigger point massage: The therapist uses a variety of strokes but applies deeper, more focused pressure on myofascial trigger points-"knots" that can form in the muscles, are painful when pressed, and cause symptoms elsewhere in the body as well.
  • Shiatsu massage: The therapist applies varying, rhythmic pressure from the fingers on parts of the body that are believed to be important for the flow of a vital energy called gi.
  • stone massage: Stones (usually basalt or marble) are heated in hot water and are placed on the back along both sides of the spine, and on top of the torso. Heated stones coated in oil are then used directly in the hands of the therapist delivering various massaging strokes.

To learn massage, most therapists attend a school or training program, with a much smaller number training instead with an experienced practitioner. The course of study typically covers subjects such as anatomy and physiology (structure and function of the body); kinesiology (motion and body mechanics); therapeutic evaluation; massage techniques; first aid; and hands-on practice of techniques.


Relief from pain due to musculoskeletal injuries and other causes is cited as a major benefit of massage therapy.

Others have also reported that from a single dose, massage can also relieve tension headaches, back pain, state anxiety, and enhance performance and alertness.

Through a multiple dose treatment, massage might help sub-acute, chronic, non-specific low back pain, along with anxiety and depression. And massage involving stretching has been used to treat spastic diplegia resulting from Cerebral palsy, and has been used in an effort to improve symptoms, disease progression, and general quality of life (However this treatment is not scientifically supported).

Therapists work in a variety of settings, including private offices, hospitals, clinical settings, nursing homes, studios, and homes where a calm and soothing environment is established with dim lighting, soft music, and fragrances.

Treatments usually last for 30 to 60 minutes with therapists often advising a series of appointments.

During treatment, you will lie on a special padded table or sit on a stool or chair. You might be fully clothed (for example, for a "chair massage") or partially or fully undressed (in which case you will be covered by a sheet or towel; only the parts of your body that the therapist is currently massaging are exposed).

Oil or powder is often used to help reduce friction on the skin and the therapist may use other aids, such as ice, heat, fragrances, or machines.

In 1997 there was an estimated 114 million visits to massage practitioners in the U.S. with massage therapy being the most used type of complementary and alternative medicine in hospitals in the United States. Remember: always tell your health care providers about any complementary medicine therapy you are considering or using, including massage to insure safe and coordinated care.

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