Massage 101: The World Of Touch

With more than 200 variations of massage, how do you know what's what, and what's best for you?

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Almost anyone -- from infants to seniors -- can enjoy the benefits of a good massage.

Massage is one of the oldest healing arts. Chinese records dating back 3,000 years document its use. The ancient Hindus, Persians, and Egyptians applied forms of massage for many ailments, and Hippocrates wrote papers recommending the use of rubbing and friction for joint and circulatory problems.

Today, the benefits of massage are varied and far-reaching, says Les Sweeney, executive vice president of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP). Massage therapy has proven beneficial for many chronic conditions, including low back pain, arthritis, bursitis, fatigue, high blood pressure, diabetes, immunity suppression, infertility, smoking cessation, depression, and more. And, as so many of us already know, massage also helps relieve the stress and tension of everyday living that can lead to disease and illness.

But with more than 200 variations of massage, bodywork, and somatic therapies, how do you know what's what, and what's best for you? First, a definition of the different therapy categories is in order, says Sweeney.

  • Massage is the application of soft-tissue manipulation techniques to the body, generally intended to reduce stress and fatigue while improving circulation. It taps into the energy systems in the body.
  • Bodywork includes various forms of touch therapies that may use manipulation, movement, and/or repatterning to affect structural changes to the body.
  • Somatic, which means "of the body," is often used to describe a body/mind or whole-body approach as opposed to a physical perspective only.

According to William F. Burton, Jr., a professional massage therapist/bodyworker and co-owner of the Enraptured Day Spa in Philadelphia, most varieties of massage and bodywork therapies can be broken down into four broad categories:

  1. Contemporary Western massage
  2. Oriental methods
  3. Structural/functional/movement integration
  4. Non-Oriental energetic methods

Here's a brief explanation of some of the more common techniques of Western and Oriental massage.

Swedish massage: This is the predominant example of Western massage and is the most commonly used method in the United States. Developed in Sweden in the 1830s, it uses a system of long, gliding strokes, kneading, and percussion and tapping techniques on the more superficial layers of muscles. It is designed to increase circulation, which may improve healing and decrease swelling from an injury. This technique also results in generalized relaxation.

Neuromuscular massage: Trigger point massage and myotherapy are varieties of neuromuscular massage, which applies concentrated pressure on trigger points of pain and passive stretching of specific muscles.

Deep tissue massage: This approach is used to alleviate chronic muscle pain by reaching deeper muscles in problem areas.

Sports massage: This uses techniques similar to deep tissue massage but more specifically adapted to deal with the needs of athletes (both professional and the weekend variety); it's often used before or after athletic events as part of an athlete's training and to promote healing from injuries.

Manual lymph drainage massage: This approach improves the flow of lymph fluid with rhythmic strokes and is used primarily in conditions with poor lymph flow, such as edema.

Oriental methods of massage are based on the principles of Chinese medicine and the flow of energy or chi through the body's meridians, or energy points, says Burton. In Oriental massage techniques, pressure is applied by finger or thumb tips to predetermined points rather than by the sweeping broad strokes of Western massage.


"There are more than a dozen varieties
of Oriental massage and bodywork therapy."

There are more than a dozen varieties of Oriental massage and bodywork therapy, but the most common forms in the U.S. are acupressure, shiatsu, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure.

Acupressure and shiatsu: These are similar varieties of finger pressure massage, with pressure applied to specific points that correspond with acupuncture points. In acupressure and shiatsu, pressure is applied to specific points with the thumb, finger, and palm to release muscle tension and increase circulation. Acupressure is the more generic term used for this approach and shiatsu is the Japanese version.

Jin Shin Jyutsu: This approach comes from an ancient Japanese healing tradition that uses touch to restore the internal flow of energy through the body by releasing energetic blockages. In this therapy the touch is very light a holds each pressure point for several minutes.