Massage Therapy: Everything You Need to Know about Massage

Massage is a practice so intrinsic to human instincts that it evolved naturally in almost every part of the world in ancient times.

Today’s masseuses utilize methods from these ancient roots, and new self-massage tools continue to be inspired by old techniques.

No matter the practice, all massage produces the same benefits, such as relaxation, better circulation, muscular healing, and pain relief.

In this post, we’ll explore everything there is to know about massage and dive into the options you have for professional and DIY massage therapy.


Massage 101: What You Need to Know

Massage is a term that encompasses anything that involves rubbing, kneading and applying pressure or pulses to muscle tissue.

Anyone can massage themselves with their hand or using a tool, or you can have a masseuse perform a professional deep tissue massage with their hands using learned techniques.

What Does a Massage Do to Your Body?

When pressure is applied to a muscle, it compresses inward, gently stretching it. This helps release tension and increase mobility in the muscle.

When compression is released, fresh blood is drawn into the area, and your body goes to work flushing out toxins and rebuilding tissue with oxygen and nutrients.

As healing takes place, inflammation goes away and pain is relieved.

This entire process takes place amazingly quickly, which is why you can experience pain relief immediately after a massage.

However, there’s also a long-term effect, which may result in muscle soreness the next day.

This is the longer healing process taking place, and you can drink more water and stretch the muscles frequently to speed it up.

Origins and History of Massage Therapy

Massage therapy has been present in every part of the world at virtually every point in time.

The first records of massage therapy being practiced are in China, India, and Egypt, and only doctors were allowed to perform it.

Egyptians invented reflexology, which influenced many other cultures.

In the early 19th century, Swedish doctor Per Henril Ling created the modern Swedish massage system still used in spas around the world today [1].


Benefits of Massage Therapy

Not only does a massage feel good, but also it offers physical and mental health benefits beyond what you’d expect.

Here are 11 proven benefits:

1. Relieves Stress and Anxiety

Kneading out physical tension also relieves mental tension.

A good massage induces physical relaxation, releases feel-good hormones and reduces stress hormone levels.

The result is lowered levels of stress and anxiety, so you can improve your mental health naturally.

In a study on 68 patients with anxiety, regular massage therapy reduced symptoms in all subjects due to the relaxation response induced [1].

2. Fights Depression and Anxiety

By releasing endorphins and increasing serotonin levels, massage can help fight depression and anxiety.

Anyone who’s suffered from panic attacks knows that relaxing your body is the key to relaxing your mind.

Massage therapy works exactly in this way, to bring your body back to a peaceful state so that your mind can re-balance [2].

3. Balances Hormones

Massage helps promote hormonal balance, which improves brain performance and health in virtually every system of your body.

By increasing the release of hormones that make you feel good and reducing the levels of the “fight or flight” stress hormones in your body, particularly cortisol, massage promotes balance.

That’s why you feel a shift after a massage, resulting in relaxation and a better mood [3].

4. Fights Insomnia

Research suggests that massage therapy can reduce insomnia in people suffering from natural causes of insomnia, such as menopause-related insomnia, jet lag or stress [4].

This most likely works by lowering cortisol levels and reducing stress.

5. Helps Remove Toxins

Deep tissue massage forces stagnant blood, toxins and retained water out of soft tissue and causes new, fresh blood with oxygen and nutrients to enter the area.

It also stimulates your lymphatic system, which in turn helps release toxins from your body [5].

6. Improves Circulation

The pressure and kneading of muscle tissue in massage therapy causes new blood to draw into the area, increasing activities such as healing and flushing out toxins.

According to a study on healthy subjects, massage is measurably shown to increase localized circulation and reduce muscle fatigue in the area that’s massaged [6].

7. Elevates Energy Levels

Holding onto tension drains your energy.

By improving your mood, balancing your hormones, releasing tension and letting your muscles relax, massage helps you get your energy back.

It also improves sleep quality, helping you feel properly rested in the morning.

8. Enhances Immunity

A good massage will boost your immune system by lowering levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone known for suppressing immune function.

Your lymphatic system is the drainage system your immune system depends on for accumulating pathogens and flushing them out the body.

Unlike your heart and blood vessel system, there’s no pump for the lymphatic system.

Activities like massage stimulate the lymph nodes, helping them flush out toxins and rejuvenate your natural defence system [7].

9. Relieves Pain

The current consensus in the medical community is that massage therapy is effective as an adjunctive therapy for pain management.

While it may not solve 100 percent of your pain problems, it’s completely safe, and doing it is better than not doing it in almost every case [8].

If you suffer from TMJ pain or frequent headaches, you may benefit from massaging your upper body, including your upper back, neck, shoulders, the base of your skull and your scalp.

Tension and stagnant blood flow in certain areas can lead to dull headaches that tend to last all day.

Massaging an area that’s in pain and the areas around it boosts circulation, lowers inflammation and promote healing, while releasing endorphins that act as natural pain-killers.

10. Increases Mobility

Massaging a muscle will improve its range of motion by lowering inflammation so that puffy tissue can get out the way.

The circulation a good massage generates can relubricate a muscle and help it tone up so that it can function optimally.

By providing a gentle stretch, deep tissue massage also helps lengthen your muscles to warm them up for movement.

11. Speeds Muscle Recovery

Massage therapy reduces soreness and pain that comes from strength-training your muscles or playing sports.

It speeds up the healing and recovery of muscles by flushing out lactic acid and increasing circulation so that muscles get the oxygen and nutrients they need.

A study found that massage alleviated post-workout soreness by an average of 30 percent, based on measurements of muscular swelling, inflammation and pain [9].


12 Types of Massage Therapy

Given massage therapy originated from so many different parts of the world, various cultures have developed their own practices, techniques and methods for massage we can all enjoy today.

Here are some of the major examples:

1. Deep Tissue Massage

A professional deep tissue massage is a popular massage therapy choice for people who want to relieve muscle fatigue and manage stress or frequent physical exertion.

What makes deep tissue massage therapy different is that it penetrates deep into the muscle tissues by applying more pressure than most massages.

It not only kneads out muscle tissue, but also provides fascia release, leading to better mobility and an intense sense of relaxation by the end of the 60- to 90-minute massage.

Most spas and massage businesses offer deep tissue massage as a therapy option.

2. Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is a type of massage therapy that involves a combination of specific movements and actions that effectively massage muscle tissue.

Some of these motions are long gliding strokes, percussion, kneading, vibration and circular rubbing. If you want a massage for the stress relief, relaxation and mood boost it gives you (you deserve it!) then a Swedish massage might be right for you.

If you have a specific trouble spot that needs worked out, a deep tissue massage would be more therapeutic [7].

3. Trigger Point Massage

A trigger point massage is a massage where pressure is applied to specific points in muscle or connective tissue such as the fascia around your muscles and the tendons in your knee, elbow and shoulder joints.

Fibrous tissue has a way of getting knotted and inflamed when it becomes overworked, strained or misaligned from postural stress.

The trigger points that result have limited blood supply, so due to insufficient oxygen and built-up toxins, they are inflamed and tender to the touch.

4. Reflexology Massage

Reflexology is a system in which points on the sole of your foot are thought to correspond with specific organs.

If you’ve seen a reflexology chart with a foot sectioned off into different parts, then you probably get the idea of a reflexology foot massage.

In the original reflexology practices of ancient times, applying pressure to each reflexology point was thought to release negative energy and restore health by balancing the male-female or yin-yang energy flow.

5. Shiatsu Massage

Shiatsu is a Japanese massage technique that releases tension, stress and pain.

It’s based on the traditional Japanese understanding of the body’s energetic meridians, or channels through which it travels, delivering vital life force to all your organs and cells.

Shiatsu massage is particularly effective against stress, and the slow kneading movements help promote deep relaxation while restoring your energy.

You can find Shiatsu masseuses at local businesses. The massage is typically performed on a low massage table without any massage oil.

Your Shiatsu masseuse may ask you if you would like more pressure or less, and you should expect to feel the “good type of pain” from a Shiatsu massage, just like you would from any quality massage [8].

6. Chair Massage

A chair massage involves sitting in an electric massage chair.

It’s a lot different from laying down on a massage table for a masseuse to work on your back without your shirt on.

Instead, you sit down in the chair, typically for 10 to 30 minutes at a time, and relax while the chair massages you. Massage chairs come in all types, but generally have rollers that run along a track.

Typically, there are programs you can choose from to generate different automatic massages. Sometimes you can find these chairs at malls, or you can purchase a chair for your home.

7. Stone Therapy

Stone therapy is an ancient tradition from Japan, and it’s been proven in research studies to induce relaxation and help repair muscles that are strained, tight or damaged.

In stone therapy, flat heated stones are placed on parts of your body.

They’re made of materials such as basalt, so that they stay hot longer. The heat from the stones, which are typically around 130 to 145 degrees Farenheight, increases circulation and relaxes your muscle tissue.

A sheet is placed on your skin beneath the stones so that you’re not burned. You can expect a hot stone therapy session to be around 90 minutes long [9].

8. Cupping Therapy

Cupping therapy from Traditional Chinese Medicine originally involved glass bowls with fire that suctions the air out of the cups to vacuum your skin and tissue beneath it.

Today, more convenient cupping therapy devices have been developed, involving silicone and other materials that are durable but not so easily breakable, and suction technology you simply squeeze to vacuum out the air.

Cupping therapy is shown to increase circulation, and it works by pulling muscle and fascia away from your body, as opposed to compression-based massage techniques that push the tissue inwards.

In opening up the muscle tissue as it’s drawn into a vacuum, cupping therapy increases fluid mobility in your muscle tissues to promote healing.

9. Thai Massage

Thai massage provides a different, one-of-a-kind massage experience that has been shown in studies to improve migraines and reduce back pain [13].

It incorporates passive stretching like in sports massage, making Thai massage somewhat like a passive yoga practice, with various postures the masseuse places you in.

In addition to stretching your muscles, the masseuse uses rhythmic movements with her hands to knead them like a shiatsu massage.

Like Traditional Chinese Medicine, Thai massage is based on meridian lines in the body, believed to play a role in restoring equilibrium.

10. Prenatal Massage

A prenatal massage caters specifically to pregnant women to relieve back pain, reduce stress and improve sleep.

A masseuse needs special training to become a prenatal massage therapist, and the massage is performed on a table for specifically designed for prenatal massage so that the woman’s body is supported, comfortable and ergonomically aligned.

11. Aromatherapy Massage

An aromatherapy massage is a spa treatment that helps you relieve stress, reduce tension and ease your mind.

Your masseuse will use pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils, which are proven to soothe your nervous system and promote hormonal balance [14].

As your masseuse massages these oils into your temples, neck, shoulders and back, you’re inhaling the beneficial aromas.

Plus, these oils have beneficial properties for your skin, and they can continue to promote healing after the massage as they absorb through your skin.

12. Couple’s Massage

A couple’s massage is just like a regular massage, but with your partner, friend or a family member getting a massage alongside you with another massage therapist.

Typically, a Swedish massage is the type, but it can be any type of couple’s massage the spa offers. A couple’s massage is a great way to spend time with someone, since you can chat during the session.


Getting Started with Professional Massage Therapy

To start reaping the benefits of professional massage therapy, you can schedule a massage session at a local spa.

Choose a spa that comes highly recommended on Yelp and Google, and if you end up liking it, you can check out their membership options.

Spa membership packages can help you save money on sessions so you can keep enjoying massages month after month.

Explore different massage types, such as Swedish, Shiatsu and hot stone massage therapy to discover what give you the greatest results.

If you don’t want to go out to a spa, you can hire a massage therapist from Soothe.com or Zeel.com, which are sites that specialise in pairing you with a massage therapist who will come to your doorstep.

You can even find great massage therapists on Angie’s List and Thumbtack.

Your massage therapist will bring the massage table to your home, as well as any other materials they need for the massage and to create an at-home spa atmosphere.


How to Get a Great Massage at Home with Self-Massage Tools

You don’t need to pay for a masseuse, leave your home or rely on your partner to get the relief you need from a quality massage.

Self-massage tools are devices, whether electronic or not, that help you massage your body and manage pain, mobility issues and other conditions.

Some self-massage tools require you to leverage your own body weight, while others drill into your muscles with motorized power.

Many of the massage tools out there today model after traditional massage techniques, such as Shiatsu or deep tissue massage.

Chances are, you can find at least one tool that suits your unique massage needs.

Electric Massagers

Electric massagers are powered either electrically by being plugged into a wall or USB port, or they’re powered by batteries you either recharge or replace.

Electric massagers can simulate different types of traditional massage techniques, such as Shiatsu massage, but their real speciality is generating powerful percussion, vibration and pressure, because this helps replace the effort required on your part to perform the massage on yourself.

Here are some types of electric massagers you can find:

Scalp Massagers

While there are manual scalp massage devices as well, electric scalp massagers tend to provide amazing effects through the vibration they provide.

Not only do they relax your entire body, but also stimulate hair growth and reduce dandruff.

Scalp massagers can even increase blood flow in your brain and relieve or prevent tension headaches.

Eye Massagers

Eye massage devices stimulate the tissue around your eyes that are prone to strain and stress.

They typically involve heat, vibration and sometimes a gentle kneading.

Enjoying an eye massage can help people who experience tension headaches, eye strain and dry eyes.

Neck and Shoulder Massagers

Neck and shoulder massagers are electric devices that hang over your shoulders and massage the back and sides of your neck, along with the tops and fronts of your shoulders.

They’re excellent for office workers or anyone who spends long hours at a computer because the neck and shoulders store tension when your neck is craned toward the computer screen.

They require minimal effort to use, and you can even use them at your desk.

Leg and Foot Massagers

Air leg compression massagers involve placing your legs and feet inside sockets that fill with air and compress your legs.

The result is reduced inflammation, pain and fatigue, along with restored circulation and mobility.

Other massagers are shaped like boots, and they massage both your feet and calves with kneading massage rollers, and sometimes include an air compression feature.

Shiatsu foot massagers are also very popular. These massagers mimic a shiatsu type of massage for your feet.

Percussion Massagers

Percussion massagers come in various types, but what they have in common is that they put motorized force behind pulses that drill pressure into layers of tissue.

What you get is a deep tissue massage, which is sometimes too intense for some, but could be exactly what you need to quash an ongoing muscle problem involving tightness or pain.

Some percussion massagers are wand-like, while others are gun-like, and the latter tends to drive more force.


Manual Massage Tools

These tools often rely on your own body weight, but they’re also usually a lot cheaper and plenty of people swear by them.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about charging the device.

Chances are, it’s more durable than an electric massager, but comes with a better warranty. Here are four manual massage tools for self-massage to consider:

Massage Sticks or Canes

Massage sticks are similar to foam rollers, but they’re made of a firmer plastic material.

These sticks are cane like in their shape and include a J-shaped hook at one or both ends for hooking around your body and applying pressure with the knob at the end of the hook.

These are great for targeting small, specific trigger points, as well as hard-to-reach points that need your attention.

Massage sticks are easy to use and even easier to transport, so they’re great for bringing to the gym.

Foam Rollers

Foam rollers are typically larger than massage sticks, and are used a lot differently.

You lay on a mat and place the foam roller under your leg or back so that you can roll on the foam roller.

It should be just a small rolling action, and the focus is on compressing your muscles on the foam roller with the help of gravity and your body weight.

When you feel tenderness or pain, you know the foam roller is “waking up” that area and restoring blood flow.

Massage Balls

Massage balls work the same way as foam rollers, except they are spherical, and they come in different sizes for targeting different areas.

Tennis ball-sized massage balls, for example, are great for massaging your calves, hamstrings and glutes when you sit down on a mat on the floor.

Against a wall, you can use a massage ball to target your shoulders and upper back.

Another way to use a massage ball is to place it on the floor and roll your foot over it, for reflexology benefits that relax the whole body.

Some massage balls have ridges or spikes that add to the trigger point release benefits it offers.

Cupping Sets

Cupping sets are less conventional, but they’re widely liked by those who try them.

New sets have been engineered with technology that makes cupping therapy accessible and easy to DIY.

The best part about cupping therapy is that you can just lay down and relax while your therapy is in session.


Self-Massage Practices

In order for self-massage to be effective and worthwhile, safety needs to be your priority.

Listen to your body, because a little pain is good, but overdoing it can lead to more pain than necessary.

You might be sore the next day after a good massage, but if you have any serious pain worse than what you started with, be sure to see your doctor.

Read the instructions and safety warnings that come with any massage tool before turning it on or using it.

Consider having a personal trainer or physical therapist help show you how to get started with your self-massage equipment if it’s something heavy-duty like a percussion gun or chiropractic variable speed massager.

Choosing the right equipment for your needs is important, so begin with knowing what your needs are, and then learn about the tools that meet them.

For example, if you know you won’t have a partner to help you, avoid equipment you can’t use alone.

If you know you want to travel with your equipment, make sure it’s portable.

End Note: Massage is Great!

Massage calms the nervous system and provides near-instant relief when your muscles are in pain.

It’s not a guilty pleasure, but rather, something you should do regularly for your health.

With the technology available today, you can have it at home and enjoy the benefits of massage at any time.

While there’s nothing like the touch of a masseuse, you can save a lot of money investing in a tool that works for you.

If you have a medical condition or injury, be sure to consult with your doctor before trying massage therapy or a self-massage tool.