Massage therapy: definition, the different massage techniques

What is massage therapy?

Etymologically speaking, massage therapy means “the massage that heals”. This ancestral therapeutic technique that has existed for thousands of years was already used by our ancestors in many other cultures and civilizations and includes a great diversity of manual techniques.

Despite differences in philosophy and types of manipulation, these techniques share several points in common.

Thus, the main objectives of massage therapy are to promote relaxation (muscular and nervous), blood and lymphatic circulation, assimilation, and digestion of food, elimination of toxins, proper functioning of vital organs, and awakening to mind-body awareness.

As we know it today, massage therapy has been perfected, refined, and modernized so that touch becomes a more structured approach. in, the opinion of specialists in this therapeutic technique.

The benefits of massage therapy

Massage therapy is suitable for most people, from toddlers to the elderly. Its effects, which can be soothing or energizing, could decrease nervous excitability, relieve conditions caused by stress (including back pain, migraine, exhaustion, and insomnia), increase blood and lymphatic circulation and lead to a state of general well-being. It also has other therapeutic applications that we will describe below.

Massage therapy after pregnancy

Massage therapy is widely used in pregnancy, since it reduces the risk of injuries to the perineum at the time of delivery as well as postpartum discomfort and discomfort, rebalances the body, reduces muscle tension, helps the woman to reclaim her body gently, and also relaxes and tones the parts that have been solicited and tired by overload.

From a psychological point of view, massage therapy promotes better moral recovery, and helps prevent the symptoms of baby blues, but also reduces stress and fatigue thanks to its relaxing effects.

Massage therapy to relax

The beneficial effects of massage therapy on anxiety have been found in many studies: due to its relaxing properties, massage therapy makes it possible to better manage anxiety-provoking situations and events in everyday life.

Relieve lower back and muscle pain

Numerous studies have highlighted the effectiveness of massage therapy in treating acute or chronic non-specific low back pain, particularly when massage is performed by licensed therapists and combined with exercise and education programs.

Massage therapy helps relieve lower back pain through stretching in the pelvis, legs, and lumbar region, which will generate a feeling of well-being and muscle relaxation.

It happens that some back problems are consecutive to a problematic abdominal musculature, in these cases, massages in the abdomen can be beneficial.

Improve the quality of life of people with cancer.

Several studies have concluded that massage therapy provides significant benefits, particularly in the short term, for people with cancer. Indeed, massage therapy improves the degree of relaxation, mood, and quality of sleep of the patient.

It also reduces fatigue, anxiety, nausea, and pain in patients, which contributes to an improvement in the immune system’s response. In addition, another clinical trial showed that massage therapy greatly improved the mood of women caring for their spouses with cancer, in addition to significantly reducing perceived stress.

Improving the growth of children born prematurely

Different positive effects of massage in premature newborns are reported in the scientific literature. For example, it may influence weight gain and promote performance on developmental tasks, and bone formation when combined with physical activity and visual acuity.

It would also reduce hospital stay, and stress levels during hospitalization and improve neurodevelopment measured at 2 years.

However, most of these findings are based on clinical trials with small sample sizes and often methodological shortcomings. This is why it is not possible, for the moment, to comment on the effectiveness and relevance of massage.

Contribute to the treatment of constipation.

One study showed that abdominal massage sessions could reduce the severity of certain gastrointestinal symptoms, such as constipation and abdominal pain, and also increase the number of bowel movements.

Contribute to the treatment of fibromyalgia

Some research has found significant positive effects on fibromyalgia symptoms, such as reduced depression, pain, and analgesic use, improved mobility, sleep, and quality of life, and decreased feelings of helplessness. But, some studies have pointed out that most of these effects do not persist in the long term and massage can be very painful in these conditions.

However, in the long run, it could lead to a decrease in general pain that would compensate for this inconvenience.

Contribute to the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

A few trials have shown some positive effects of massage on ADHD, such as a decrease in the degree of hyperactivity, an increase in the time spent on the task as well as an improvement in mood, classroom behavior, and sense of well-being.

The different types of massage

Massage therapy is practiced mainly with the fingers and hands, but also with the feet, elbows, and even knees. Depending on the technique used, the maneuvers can be applied to the whole body or to a single part.

We can focus mainly on the skin and muscles or go deeper to tendons, ligaments, and fascia, or target specific points along the acupuncture meridians. Although we can easily list more than 100 different massages and bodywork techniques1, we can group them into 5 main categories.

  • The European tradition of physiotherapy, based on Western principles of anatomy and physiology and soft tissue manipulation, including Swedish massage, is the classic method.
  • The modern North American tradition, is also based on Western principles of anatomy and physiology but integrates a psycho-corporal dimension with traditional concepts. These include Californian massage, Esalen massage, neo-Reichian massage, and neuromuscular massage.
  • Postural techniques, such as postural integration, Rolfing, Trager, and Hellerwork, are aimed at reshaping body structure through re-education of posture and movement. Although sharing some similarities with these techniques, somatic education approaches, such as the Feldenkrais and the Alexander techniques, are not considered forms of massage therapy.
  • Oriental techniques, based among others on traditional Chinese medicine principles, such as Tui na massage, acupressure, shiatsu, reflexology, and Jin Shin Do.
  • Energy therapies are inspired by ancient healing practices using the laying on of hands, such as therapeutic touch, Reiki, and polarity.

The massage therapy session

Massage therapy covers a wide variety of techniques, which is why the course of the sessions varies considerably. Indeed, depending on the technique used, the massage can be exercised on a naked or dressed person, lying down or sitting, with or without oil.

It can be performed on several types of supports: massage table, futon placed on the floor, and ergonomic chair. As for the places of massages, they are also very diverse: centers, groups of therapists, at home, at work, and in private practice … The environment and the context (comfort of the room, massage equipment, brightness, noises) are very important and have a very great influence on the smooth running of the massage.

At the beginning of the session, the massage therapist talks with the person who consults him to assess his needs, his desires, and to choose with him the type of massage to provide.

During the massage therapy session, the masseur performs various gestures according to the practice used on the body of the recipient of the massage. During the sessions, massage products can also be used such as massage oil, essential oils, and creams … in order to complete the effectiveness of the gesture and to bring certain complementary virtues.

Traditionally, the classic massage is provided for an hour, but the sessions can vary from 20 min to 2 hours depending on the type of massage and the problem of the individual.

For example, the seated amma massage adapted to the business world can cause deep relaxation in just 20 minutes while some African massage techniques, or Shiatsu, may require sessions lasting from 1h30 to 2h.

There are some rare contraindications to massage therapy, especially in case of an inflammatory process, fever, fractures, recent wounds, or bruises.

In addition, since massage increases blood pressure and lowers heart rate, it should be preceded and followed by an evaluation of these parameters when performed on patients sensitive to these changes.

In the case of circulatory disorders (phlebitis, thrombosis, varicose veins), cardiac disorders (arteriosclerosis, hypertension, etc.), and diabetes, medical advice should be sought.

Become a massage therapist: the job of physiotherapist masseur

In almost all European countries, training in massage and kinesitherapy is spread over 3 or 4 years. It is even possible to follow a university course up to the master’s and doctoral levels, as is the case in Belgium. Across Europe, however, the standards for training and practice of physiotherapy are very disparate.

The World Confederation for Physical Therapy, an international organization of more than 100 professional associations specializing in body therapies, works to standardize curriculum and practice internationally.

History of massage therapy

Texts and illustrations have highlighted that massage is part of the 4,000-year-old Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as the Ayurvedic medicine of India. Manual healing techniques have also been used in Egypt and Africa for over 4000 years.

In the West, the practice dates back to Greco-Roman times. Among the Greeks, passionate about beauty and physical education, massage was part of popular culture. It was customary, in gymnasiums and palaestra, to follow a bath with good friction with oils. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), the “father” of Western medicine, used it as a method of treatment.

On the other hand, among the Romans, massage had no therapeutic connotation. It was practiced in public places (restrooms, gymnasiums, massage workshops), and later transformed into places of debauchery, which contributed to the bad reputation of massage and its prohibition by the clergy.

It was at the end of the Renaissance that some doctors reintroduced this practice.

Since Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation in the seventeenth century, massage therapy has gradually become integrated into health care. Beginning in the 1960s, after a few decades of dominance of technology and pharmacology in modern medicine, there was a renaissance of more holistic medicine, including massage and bodywork techniques.

Currently, massage therapy is regulated in 3 Canadian provinces (Ontario, British Columbia and Newfoundland, and Labrador) and in about twenty American states.

In Europe, it is the professions of physiotherapists and masseur-physiotherapist are recognized. In Germany, the practice is covered by the health insurance scheme. In China, it is fully integrated into the health care system.

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