It’s now estimated that in the U.S. alone the massage therapy industry generates over $12 billion annually! Roughly 39.1 million adult Americans (18 percent of the total population) had a massage at least once in the previous year, according to the American Massage Therapy College,
Not only is massage therapy an effective way to help soothe sore muscles and improve blood flow, it also doubles as a powerful, natural stress reliever for many people. Today, there’s a wide range of massage techniques used by therapists to help people overcome common health conditions like fibromyalgia, anxiety and arthritis. Massage techniques like Swedish massage, spots massages and reflexology are now commonly being offered at such places as spas, yoga studies, hotels and chiropractic offices.
Quick Facts About Massages:
- Popularity of massage therapy is growing rapidly; every year about 20 percent more massages are performed than in the previous year.
- Estimates show that there are between 300,000 to 350,000 trained massage therapists or massage therapy students in the United States.
- There are currently more than 250 different types of massages being offered around the world according to The Association of Bodywork & Massage Professionals. Body massages offer different benefits depending on what the patient’s goals are, but most have the same underlying principles.
- The most popular places for massages to be performed include the clients home/office, spa/salon, a holistic health care setting, health club/athletic facility, or massage therapy franchise.
- Surveys show that 52 percent of adult Americans who had a massage in 2015 received it for medical or health reasons such as pain management, soreness/stiffness/spasms, injury rehabilitation or overall wellness.
- In 2015 more than 51 million American adults (16 percent) had discussed massage therapy with their doctors, and about 69 percent of their doctors or health care providers referred them to a therapist/strongly recommended massage therapist.
- Some studies have found that up to 91 percent of people agree that professional massages can be effective in reducing pain.
- Massages are also very common for reduction stress and fatigue; 33 percent of massage consumers in 2015 had a massage for relaxation/stress reduction.
What Is Massage Therapy?
Massage therapy is defined as “the manual manipulation of muscular structure and soft body tissues of the human body (including muscle, connective tissue, tendons and ligaments).” Massage “modalities” have been used for thousands of years by people living all over the world as a means of naturally treating both mental and physical body ailments. (1)
Today, scientific studies show that massage therapy improves functions of the lymphatic system, helps regulate hormones and can prevent many injuries.
A Brief History of Massages:
Throughout history massage has been employed to improve recovery time, restore energy, manage stress and ease body aches. The first records of massages date back over 3,000 years to Ancient China, and today massages are considered to be one of the longest-standing forms of “healing art.”
Many of the world’s most influential cultures have had their own specific therapies and techniques related to body massages that have been handed down from generation to generation. This includes the Ancient Greeks, Hindus, Persians, Egyptians French, Swedish, Thai, Indian, Japanese and Chinese. Today their teachings continue to carry massage therapy forward into conventional medicine practices.
“Massage” can mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask. It’s believed that the French first termed the word “massage” to describe a healing practice of kneading the body. They believed that friction and pressure applied to certain areas on the body could provide benefits by breaking up scar tissue, even if at the time the massage didn’t actually feel so comfortable (the same idea as how foam rolling works).
In the West, massage has been a popular way to naturally treat the body since about the 1930s. The French are believed to have derived the word massage from the Ancient Greek word “masso,” which meannt to knead with the hands. Hippocrates was said to have written papers recommending the use of rubbing and friction for joint and circulatory problems.
Another major influencer in the field of massage therapy was the Ancient Chinese. Medical texts dating back centuries to pre-dynasty China listed massage techniques, which could be used to alleviate common aches and pains and improve the flow of energy. Throughout the history of Eastern medicinal practices massage therapy has been prescribed in conjunction with holistic treatments like yoga, meditation, acupuncture and tai chi to improve overall well-being.
Types of Massages & Massage Techniques
There are many different types of body massages offered today by a range of trained (and sometimes untrained) massage therapists. Some of the most common types include:
- Swedish Massage: This is the most popular form of massage worldwide. It works by stimulating circulation and involves five basic kneading strokes (which can be performed either soft/gently or firmer), all flowing toward the heart to manipulate soft tissue.
- Deep Tissue Massage: These massages utilize deep-tissue/deep-muscle movements to affect the sub-layer of musculature and fascia. They are normally used for treating chronic muscular pain, injury rehabilitation and reducing inflammation-related disorders such as arthritis.
- Sports Massage: Sports massages are often performed on athletes to warm the body, improve blood flow to muscles/tissue, and help prevent or treat injuries. They are performed pre-event, post-event, and part of preventative injury treatment plans.
- Prenatal Massage: Pregnancy massages have been found to be both effective and safe or both mother and fetus. They are usually performed with the woman on her side and can help reduce pregnancy discomforts like lower back or leg pains, along with emotional well-being.
- Thai Massage: Thai massages (also called nuad bo rarn) have been practiced in Thailand for over 2,500 years and are often included in sacred ceremonies. They are performed on a firm mat on the floor instead of on a table, and feature kneading and positioning that stimulates tissue and organs according to certain energy lines.
- Soft Tissue Massage/Release: This method was developed in Europe to help treat athletes and runners. It works by placing the muscles in a certain position and softly manipulating them so they stretch in a very specific direction or plane.
- Acupressure: Acupressure is an ancient Eastern healing art that uses the fingers to press key points on the surface of the skin. This stimulates energy channels (sometimes known as Qi), helps improve blood flow and lowers muscular tension.
- Shiatsu: Shiatsu is an Ancient Japanese massage that is similar to acupressure in that concentrates on unblocking the flow of life energy and restoring balance in the body’s channels/meridians.
- Aromatherapy Massage: Incorporating aromatherapy with essential oils during massage.
- Craniosacral therapy: It’s a non-invasive, manual therapy performed on the head, skull and sacrum by certain trained chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and massage therapists.
While massage is the application of soft-tissue manipulation techniques to the body, “bodywork” therapies and “somatic” treatments are also similar in many ways. Bodywork encompasses various forms of touch therapies that use manipulation, movement and/or repatterning, while somatic therapies focus on the meaning “of the body” and its energy channels along with the body/mind connection. When you combine the fields of massage therapies, bodywork and somatic treatments, around the world the most popular modalities include:
- cupping therapy
- use of oils, lotions and powders
- and pressure to muscular tissue or organs
Wondering what type of people become massage therapists, or what massage therapy school is all about?
Surveys show that massage therapists often enter the profession as a second career. A whopping 86 percent are female, and usually in their 30s or 40s. Becoming a licensed massage therapist who works in a professional setting usually involves several years of professional training, and currently 44 states in the U.S regulate massage therapists or provide state certification.
There are now more than 300 accredited massage therapy schools and programs in the U.S., and on average accreditation requires 671 hours of training. The vast majority of massage therapists (93 percent) continue to enroll in continuing education classes and hold over jobs in the health field, like teaching fitness classes for example.
Most therapists wind up becoming members of a professional organization, but it’s also common to be a sole practitioner. Most states that license massage therapists require a passing grade on the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx) or one of two exams provided by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. Most therapists are fully willing to disclose information about their training, so it never hurts to ask.
8 Massage Therapy Benefits
1. Treats Lower Back Pain
According to a Cochrane review on massage therapy for chronic lower back pain featuring 13 clinical trials, massage might be beneficial for patients with acute and chronic low-back pain, especially when combined with other holistic exercises and education. Some evidence suggests that acupuncture massage (acupressure) can be even more effective than classic/Swedish massage for lowering back pain. (2)
2. Reduces Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Bursitis & Joint Pain
Around 35 percent of all people who receive massages do so to help ease pain associated with stiffness, soreness, injuries and chronic health conditions. Massages have been found to effectively relax muscles and stiff joints, plus lower symptoms associated with fibromyalgia — a chronic syndrome characterized by generalized pain, joint rigidity, intense fatigue, sleep alterations, headache and muscle spasms.
In 2011, the journal Evidence Based Complimentary & Alternative Medicine printed findings from one randomized controlled clinical trial investigating whether massage-myofascial release therapy could improve pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia. Seventy-four fibromyalgia patients were randomly assigned to experimental or placebo groups for 20 weeks. Results showed that immediately after treatment and at the one-month mark, symptoms of anxiety, quality of sleep, pain and quality of life were significantly improved in the experimental group compared to the placebo group. (3)
3. Can Help Lower High Blood Pressure
According to a 2013 report published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, patients who receive massage therapy on average display lower mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings than those in control groups. Evaluation of massage therapy’s effects on blood pressure show that “massage is safe, effective, applicable and cost-effective intervention in controlling BP and pre-hypertension.” (4)
4. Lowers Depression, Anxiety & Fatigue
Massage therapy has been shown to help lower feelings of stress, along with depression and the fatigue that accompanies it. Studies have found that the presence of depression is often triggered by active and chronic pain, and that depression itself then leads to worsened muscle tension and pain.
Some findings show that chronic pain and depression can both be attributed to alterations in cognitive functioning, specifically in the hypothalamus-hypophyseal-adrenal axis. (5) Multidisciplinary massage approaches can help reverse the cycle of depression and have achieved significant improvements in patients with chronic muscle tension, pain, low energy or trouble sleeping, and depression.
5. Helps Regulate Hormones & Control Diabetes
Alternative therapies are now being used to treat the underlying hormonal and inflammatory causes of diabetes, including massage, dietary supplements, acupuncture, hydrotherapy and yoga therapies. These seem to be effective for lowering diabetes symptoms and risk factors, plus they don’t have the side effects of conventional medications or approaches for treating diabetes. (6)
Massage therapy has been recommended for diabetes for over 100 years, and various studies have found it can help with inducing relaxation, lowering nerve damage (neuropathy), helping people to become more active, reducing emotional eating, improving diet quality, improving sleep, helping to restore proper use of insulin, and lowering inflammation caused by hormonal imbalances.
6. Raises Immunity
The Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia has found that Swedish massage therapy can help cancer patients deal with symptoms of their illness and lower distress, which might be able to boost recovery.
Swedish massage interventions on oncology patients show positive results for reducing perceived levels of four measures: pain, physical discomfort, emotional discomfort and fatigue. A total of 251 oncology patients volunteered to participate in the hospital’s study for over a 3-year period, and an analysis found a statistically significant reduction in patient-reported distress for all four of these measures. (7)
7. Helps with Smoking Cessation
Research done by University of Miami School of Medicine showed that that self-massages can be an effective adjunct treatment for adults attempting smoking cessation. Massage has been shown to alleviate smoking-related anxiety, reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, improve mood, and reduce the number of cigarettes smoked. (8)
8. Helps Improve Athletic Performance & Sports Prevent Injuries
Certain types of massages including sports massages are specifically designed to enhance athletic performance and recovery while preventing problems such as ligament tears or running injuries. It’s common today for athletes to receive massages which are performed at their athletic arena or training site to help establish blood flow and to warm up muscles prior to an event. Some sports massages also utilize other practices like visualization, meditation and deep breathing to calm the nervous system and improve the quality of healing between events.
Massage Therapy vs. Acupuncture
Acupuncture is an ancient Eastern healing technique based on balancing energy meridians within the body. Acupuncture treatments involve the use of very thin needles which are painlessly inserted into the surface of the skin at key meridian points throughout the body that correspond with pain management, energy flow and the role of various organs.
The most similar type of massage therapy to acupuncture is acupressure, since both use the same points in the body and have similar origins that date back thousands of years. However, only acupuncture uses needles, while acupressure uses manipulations of the body using hands and touch. Acupressure often involves firm pressure placed on specific areas of the body using the hands and sometimes feet, which relieves tension and can stimulate healing depending on someone’s specific symptoms and ailments.
Both acupressure and acupuncture are often used to treat chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, eye strain, sinus problems and arthritis. Research published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine even showed that one month of acupressure treatment can be more effective in reducing chronic headaches than one month of muscle relaxant medication. (9)
Massage Therapy vs. Chiropractic Adjustments
While massage therapy focuses more on manipulating soft tissues, chiropractors focus their attention on the health of the central nervous system, specifically the spine. The primary goal of chiropractic adjustments is to bring the spine into proper alignment so that body can begin to heal itself. Chiropractic care has many of the same benefits as massage therapy− pain reduction, increased healing, lower risk for injuries and so on.
Compared to massage therapists, however, chiropractors receive much more formal training: they are doctors who need a four-year undergraduate education and also a four-year doctorate of chiropractic program. (10)
A primary focus of chiropractic treatments is helping patients develop better posture. Throughout the entire body nerves stemming from the spine help carry information to and from the important organs as well as cells, so abnormal mechanical compression and irritation of spinal joints can negatively affect someone’s overall health.
A holistic chiropractic treatment approach often involves dietary changes as well as manipulations. This helps reduce joint swelling caused by damage to the intervertebral joint, reduces inflammatory responses caused by a poor diet, hydrates the body, reduces psychological stress, can improve sleep and improve digestion.
Precautions Regarding Massage Therapy
If you currently have any health conditions that might put you at risk for further injury if you receive a massage, or if you’re pregnant, it’s best to talk to your doctor first. It’s always recommended that you work with a licensed/accredited massage therapist, which will mean different things depending on where you live. Today there are many therapists with specialized, advanced training in the anatomy, physiology, complications, precautions and contraindications related to certain health conditions (such as arthritis or pregnancy) or seek out a referral if this applies to you.
In states that regulate massage therapy, massage therapists must meet certain legal requirements to practice, which usually includes minimum hours of initial training and passing an exam. The American Massage Therapy Association and most other massage therapy organizations recognize the Federation of State Massage Therapy Board (FSMTB) as the being the credible licensing exam. Be careful to do your own research and ask questions if you’re ever unsure about who you are receiving massage therapy from.
Wondering if your insurance will cover the cost of a massage? Some insurance policies cover professional massages, especially if they are prescribed by a chiropractor or osteopath. Therapies provided as part of a prescribed treatment plan by a physician or registered physical therapist are most likely to be covered compared to visiting a spa.
Final Thoughts on Massage Therapy
- Massage therapy is an ancient healing practice that has both physical and mental benefits that have now been proven
- There are many different types of massages offered today by massage therapists who are professionally trained for 1–2 years — including Swedish, sports, deep tissue, reflexology and acupressure massages
- Benefits of massage therapy include reduced chronic pain, anxiety or depression, headaches, blood pressure and hormonal imbalances