Friday, 20 December 2013

Massage styles explained

Below I've listed many of the different styles (often called a modality) of massage you may come across in your travels. The list is in no way exhaustive; there are an ever increasing number of massage styles as every successful massage therapist names their new, cool sequence or routine after themselves and then starts to teaching it to other therapists.

First off, let me explain what a Massage modality is. All massage styles or modalities are comprised from a basic selection of hands-on techniques or strokes. These are effluerage, petrissage, tapotament, compression, friction, vibration, pulling and rocking. Every massage modality is built up from a combination of these basic strokes. A massage modality is more than just a combination of these strokes though. It invariably incorporates a unique theory of how the body works and how the massage techniques affect the body to create positive change. You will often find these theories are at odds with current scientific knowledge on how the body works. This is usually because they where initially developed years ago when our understanding of how the body worked was different and less advanced. Or, the modality was developed by someone who didn't really understand current scientific knowledge or for some reason held a belief system that meant they developed a theory outside of that knowledge.

The few things that we know which are common to all these massage modalities or styles are:
  • The therapeutic relationship. The interaction, trust and expectations between therapist and client.
  • The Placebo effect and to a lesser extent the Nocebo effect.
  • The CNS. The reaction of the clients brain and central nervous system to the environment and hands-on techniques.

This is not a list of massage styles I'm qualified in either, for that please see ....

Swedish massage - The best-known style of massage; most western forms of massage are based on this modality. Developed by Per Henrik Ling at the University of Stockholm in 1812 and known in Sweden as classic massage. The pressure used varies dependant on the therapist and would've originally included stretches and limb mobilisations, however these are seldom done anymore. Swedish massage is now primarily used as a term to describe generic relaxation massage.

Therapeutic massage - Similar techniques to Swedish massage but with the goal of reducing muscle stiffness and tension instead of relaxation. I would suggest that Therapeutic Massage is actually much closer to delivering the original goals of Traditional Swedish Massage than the current form of Swedish Massage does.

Remedial massage - Remedial = To Correct. Uses a wide range of massage and soft tissue techniques including, Cross Fibre Frictions, Muscle Energy Technique (MET), Positional Release Technique (PRT), Soft Tissue Release (STR) and Trigger Point Therapy (TrPT). Intended to fix and correct soft tissue injuries and musculoskeletal complaints. May also be referred to as Orthopaedic or Medical Massage in other parts of the world.

Sports massage - Primarily describes pre and/or post event massage which consists of a range of techniques aimed specifically at preparing the body for imminent physical activity and aiding it in a speedy recovery.

Hot stone massage - Massage performed with smooth, heated volcanic basalt stones and sometimes cold marble stones too. Heat has a calming and soothing effect for the CNS (Central Nervous System) meaning this treatment has the potential to be super relaxing and calming for the mind and body.

Myofascial techniques - Techniques aimed at effecting the Muscle (Myo) and Fascia (fascial) of the body. Includes a wide variety of techniques from the slow and gentle techniques taught by J F Barnes to the deep massage techniques associated with Structural Integration, Rolfing and Deep Tissue massage. The overall goal is to improve the structure of fascial layers, loosening restrictions, and soft tissue adhesions, and improving pain free range of motion.

Trigger Point therapy - Sometimes known as Neuromuscular therapy, is primarily concerned with what we commonly refer to as muscle knots. These are small hyper-sensitive areas that can cause pain and discomfort. Currently these knot's or Trigger Points are poorly understood, there is very little scientific evidence pointing to exactly what they are or how they are created. For further info please read my page About Trigger Points and Knots.

Thai Massage - Traditional Thai massage is often known as Lazy Mans Yoga. It's usually performed in relaxed clothing on a mat on the floor and involves a combination of compressions and stretches. Based around Thai medical theory and believed to release energy blockages within the Sen energy meridians throughout the body. Thai-on-the-table is an adaption of Thai Massage for Western clients and practitioners. It takes many of the techniques from Traditional Thai Massage and performs them with the client on a standard western massage couch.

Traditional Chinese massage - Evolved over thousands of years, Chinese massage is usually performed through sheets or small cloths with no oil. Using rhythmical pressure from thumbs, hands, forearms, and elbows this technique can be gentle or deep depending on the pressure used. It is based around the principal of meridians or energy lines within the body as is all traditional Chinese medicine.

Shiatsu - A form of bodywork/massage from Japan. Literally translated as "finger pressure", Shiatsu uses compressions by fingers, thumbs, hands and arms on specific points on the body. Similar to many therapies from Eastern Asia it is based on the theory that energy channels run throughout the body and that these compressions help to free the energy flow and improve health.

LomiLomi Hawaiian Massage - Refers to the traditional style of massage from the Pacific Islands of Hawaii. Traditionally the massage techniques and style differed from family to family but these days has become more standardised in its application. Other Pacific islands also developed unique massage variations of this style of massage.

Esalen Massage - Know for it's long full body strokes and caring, attentive nature. Esalen massage evolved over many years at The Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California USA. Over the years many different styles of massage have stopped at Esalen and been absorbed into what is ultimately an integration style of massage with it's own character.

Slavic Massage - A traditional massage style originally practiced by nomadic people from Mongolia to the Baltic Sea. Incorporating long flowing strokes, it is often said the therapist dances around the table.

Kinetic Massage - A massage style that is an integration of Eastern and Western techniques, and incorporating movement as a primary tool to achieve effective results quickly. Both Joel Tull and Edan Harari claim to who developed this specific style of massage. I personally learnt it from Joel Tull.

Seated Massage - Is performed on a specially developed chair with the client remaining fully clothed. Often used as a promotional technique due to it being ease to performing in virtually any situations. It is also used extensively in the work environment due to it's quick nature and no need to undress.

Aromatherapy - A gentle and relaxing style of massage performed with essential oils from plants and flowers which are believed to have specific healing and nurturing properties.

Reflexology - Is essentially a foot massage using little or no oil or lotions. Based around the idea that reflex zones within the feet correspond to different areas and organs of the body. Reflexologist believe it is possible to effect change in a distant body part by applying pressure to a corresponding point in the foot.

Bowen Technique - A gentle hands-on therapy that uses simple rolling moves with thumbs and fingers over specific spots on the body. Bowen Therapy is unique in that the therapist will usually perform a set of rolling moves and then leave the room for a short time whilst the client continues to lay quietly on the couch. The therapist will then return to the room, perform additional moves then leave again. This sequence continues throughout the session.

CranioSacral Therapy - An off-shoot of Cranial Osteopathy. CranioSacral Therapy is a very gentle technique often used at the head and neck area (cranium) but which can be used throughout the body. It is believed that there is a specific rhythm in the body called the Cranial Rhythm which when out of synch can cause issues. CranioSacral therapist believe they are able to stabilise this rhythm.

Manual Lymph Drainage - Another gentle and slow technique. this time aimed at the Lymph system within the body. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for Oedema, Swelling and Water Retention.

NeuroDynamics - A modern technique that involves specific joint movements aimed at freeing the pathways of the nerves through the soft tissues and structures of the body. Often referred to as nerve sliders and tensioners. This is primarily a Physiotherapy technique which is being used more and more by Remedial massage therapists due to it's effectiveness on some peripheral pain conditions.

DermoNeuroModulation - Dermo (skin), Neuro (nervous system) & Modulation (change), Is a relatively new and evolving technique aimed at the central nervous system by working with the skin. In its application it is somewhat similar to a few J F Barnes Myofascial Release techniques and some CranioSacral techniques. It is however a science based technique which is heavily influenced by the Neuromatrix theory of pain and current pain science.

Soft Tissue Distraction or Cupping - Is the use of suction cups to lift the skin and underlying soft tissues up and away from the body as opposed to most massage techniques which put pressure on the body and squash or stretch tissue. Often referred to as Cupping. It is a technique which stretches back at least hundreds of years. It is mentioned in both ancient Chinese medical txts and has some history in Egyptian medicine too.



None of these massage styles are truly unique. Similar and even identical techniques and strokes can be seen in different massage styles from opposite sides of the world. Most involve some version pushing or compression, kneading or wringing actions, pulling or traction style actions, and rocking, shaking or vibrations.

It is probably impossible to come up with a new and totally unique massage stroke or technique. You can pretty much guarantee someone somewhere has done it before.