Massage is an instinctive means of communication and giving comfort. Among animals, mothers stroke their young, and the adults of many species rub or groom each other. Medically, massage is our oldest form of treatment and one that is used by every culture. The earliest Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian medical writings all describe preventive and therapeutic uses of massage. Galen, a second century Roman physician, massaged both the emperor and gladiator, and wrote more than a dozen medical books about massage. The most familiar form in the United States, Swedish, or classic massage, was developed in Sweden in the early 1800s by Per Henrik Ling; before his death in 1838, institutes for it had been established in several countries. Following World War I, massage by hand was gradually replaced by the electrical devices used in physical therapy. By the 1940s, massage therapy had been eclipsed by modern medicine, and it was relegated to seedy massage parlors or scorned as a pleasure of the pampered rich. In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back, and massage by hand is once again considered a useful therapeutic tool.


Almost everyone can do a simple form of massage on himself or someone else, but special instruction is needed to master the techniques of the therapeutic form. Depending upon the practice, training ranges from a few weeks to a year or more. For membership, the American Massage Therapy Association requires 500 hours of study, including courses in anatomy and physiology. There are also institutes that teach and certify certain specialized forms of massage such as rolfing, a vigorous deep kneading, and reflexology and shiatsu, techniques in which specific pressure points are pressed or massaged to alleviate pain and other symptoms. Most massage therapists practice independently, although some work in tandem with physical therapists, sports medicine physicians, rehabilitation specialists, osteopaths, chiropractors, and other health professionals. To find a reputable practitioner, call the rehabilitation, or physiatry, department of a hospital.

When It Is Used

Massage is employed to alleviate stiffness, tension, and soreness in muscles, and to promote comfort and help overcome stress. Many athletic trainers recommend massage to loosen muscles before competition as well as to ease soreness afterwards. Massage can also relieve leg cramps. If you are often awakened by leg cramps or suffer restless leg syndrome, try massaging your legs before going to bed. Back and shoulder massages help some women manage labor pains, and gentle massage is one way to comfort a colicky baby. Migraines and tension headaches can be alleviated by massage; the same is true of lower back pain due to muscle spasms.

How It Works

In general, massage works by easing muscle and psychological tension and promoting relaxation. The use of aromatic oils during massage a variation of aromatherapy can help deepen relaxation. Massage increases blood flow to the area being rubbed, and this may speed healing. Contrary to common claims, however, massage cannot speed the expelling of toxins from the body. Practitioners of massage techniques that employ pressure points for example, shiatsu, reflexology, and acupressure claim benefits similar to those of acupuncture. The idea is to apply pressure to a specific part of the body to elicit a response elsewhere.

What To Expect

For Swedish, or European, massage, the person receiving treatment undresses and then reclines on a padded table, mattress, or floor pad, and the massager stands or kneels at his side. A towel or sheet is draped over parts of the body that are not being massaged. A warm, often scented oil is applied to the exposed skin, which is then massaged with different strokes. Depending upon the stroke, the fingers, thumbs, palms, or edges of the hand, as well as elbows and forearms, are used. Most strokes are gentle and pleasant. In deep massage, however, the muscles are vigorously prodded and thumped. The effect should be invigorating rafter than uncomfortable; let the practitioner know if the massage produces any sharp or radiating pain. Rolfing, another vigorous form of massage, involves manipulating the deep connective tissue, or fascia, that holds the muscles together. During a session, the rolfer uses his hands, fingers, and elbows to press deeply or pummel different parts of the body. A session can be quite painful, but devotees say they feel wonderful afterwards. There are a few other therapies that incorporate massage as part of their overall approach. For example, Hellerwork, an outgrowth of rolfing, combines deep tissue massage with posture exercises. And polarity uses massage to harness and redirect the body’s flow of energy. It also employs yoga, exercise, and nutritional and psychological counseling to provide a total approach to health and healing.

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