Massage therapy is a therapeutic style of alternative treatment and in recent years, has seen a sudden expansion in demand and popularity. And for good reason – recent research has showed that massage therapy can help alleviate pains, from migraines and overexertion to cancer-related, increase blood circulation, enhance the body’s natural healing processes, lower blood pressure, soothe stress-related issues such as insomnia and boost the immune system.
A 2010 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that just one massage session can have a positive impact on stress and boost the immune system. One session can effectively decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. High levels of cortisol can attack the white blood cells, so that’s why we are more susceptible to illness when we’re stressed. Massage reduces levels of cortisol while simultaneously raising levels of white blood cells and so, boosts the immune system.
It’s safe to say that massage therapy is a highly versatile treatment which can be used to treat a wide range of conditions. As well as this, there are many types to choose from – from the classically gentle Swedish massage, the intense deep tissue massage or the more exotics such as shiatsu or Thai massage. Because of this, it’s understandable if you’re stuck, wondering which massage to choose for. Whether you’d like to branch out into the unknown, want to play it safe or have an injury that you’d like to address, choosing a massage can be confusing if you don’t know what it involves.
Here are nine of the best massages and what conditions they’re best for…
Best massages if you’re stressed and want to relax
We all know that massages are relaxing – there’s no doubt about it. Imagine lying face down in a warm room while soft hands work silky massage oil over your tired back as soothing music plays and fragrant candles burn in the background. Even the thought is incredibly tranquil, isn’t it? Although it may seem difficult to believe, some massages are more relaxing than others and can leave you feeling as though you’ve entered a new realm of peaceful paradise, such as…
1. Swedish massage
A Swedish massage is the classic massage and is likely what spas mean when they list ‘classic massage’ on their price list. All professional therapists are taught Swedish massage techniques before any others and the massage is arguably the most common style. A Swedish massage uses a combination of these basic techniques:
• Effleurage – long, sweeping strokes usually used at the beginning and end of the session
• Petrissage – kneading of the muscles, similar to the way dough is kneaded
• Friction – applying deep pressure to a selected spot of the body using the thumbs, fingers or knuckles
• Tapotement – rhythmically tapping or using fast ‘percussion movements’ on the body such as chopping or even pounding motions. However percussion techniques are not often used these days because therapists have found they’re not very relaxing. Imagine someone applying karate chops to your bare, oiled back. It doesn’t seem very relaxing, does it?
Best for: if you’ve never had a massage before/are not a regular massage goer, relieving deep stress, releasing cramped or tight muscles, intense relaxation
2. Hot stone massage
A hot stone massage is where the therapist places smooth, heated stones on your body. The stones may also be used to massage your body. The heat of the stones soothes and loosens strained, aching muscles, which helps to draw the tension out of your body. The heat warms up your muscles, preparing them for deep tissue stimulation. A hot stone massage is a natural alternative to deep heat creams. It’s not just relaxing – it’s also more refreshing and invigorating than your average massage because of the heat which works into your body. The heat allows for the perfect balance of focused relaxation – it’s nearly too hot so it keeps you relaxed yet prevents you from truly drifting off.
Best for: deep relaxation, releasing very tense, tight muscles, invigoration
3. Chair massage
You may have seen these strange contraptions before in shopping centres, nail parlours, salons and spas. Chair massages take place in a strange looking chair with a padded mount where you rest your face and head on. You sit face forward on this chair so the therapist can work on your neck, shoulders and back. One of the main positives of a chair massage is that you don’t have to take off your clothes or have oil all over you, making it a convenient quick-fix massage for those in a hurry. The therapist can work the tension out of your upper body. However, the massage won’t be as thorough as the classic full body massages, so your health benefits may not last as long. Plus, chair massages usually take place in a public place so you might find it difficult to truly relax.
Best for: quick stress relief if you’re in a rush or don’t have much time
Best massages for pain and specific conditions
Traditional massages are fantastic if you’re after some stress relief, relaxation and tension release from your muscles. But if that pain goes a bit deeper, such as a sports injury, muscle knots or you have a certain health condition, more specific massages may work better.
4. Deep tissue massage
As the name might suggest, a deep tissue massage involves applying deep pressure onto specific trigger points of the body. It is a rather intense style of massage, which can cause discomfort and leave you feeling sore. The therapist will push and work right into your sore, knotted muscle with the determined intent of ironing it out. It’s said to be invasive, so isn’t for everyone. It is still a therapeutic massage though, and is perfect for athletes (who work their bodies much harder than the average person), people who are undertaking therapy to break down scar tissue or anyone who has dense tissue and so can respond more positively to the work.
Best for: targeting stiff, trouble spots on the body such as the neck, shoulders and lower back
5. Trigger point massage
Similar to a deep tissue massage, trigger point massage targets specific areas of the body as opposed to the whole body. These areas are known as ‘trigger points’ – tight areas within tissues which cause pain in other parts of the body. For example, a tight spot in the neck might cause pain in the head, whether it’s a dull ache or sharp, stabbing sensations. Trigger point massage is designed to alleviate the pain at its very source by applying pressure and then releasing it. It can help to release particularly constricted spots in muscles and ease deep, stubborn pains. The therapist will pinpoint the problem area and gradually build up the pressure, encouraging the area to relax. Regular sessions of trigger point therapy can help you manage pain and stress caused by chronic injuries in a natural way.
Best for: chronic muscle pain, strains and tension
6. Neuromuscular therapy
Neuromuscular therapy is a branch of trigger point massage. It is soft tissue manipulation that aims to target and treat the underlying causes of chronic pain. It is a medical massage that focuses on trigger points of the body, and addresses circulation, nerve compression, postural conditions and biomechanical problems that may be caused by repetitive movement injuries. A trained therapist will work on the muscles that are sore to touch, gradually applying pressure. Neuromuscular therapy will initially feel painful, but it should eventually relax the muscle, helping it get more oxygen and nutrients.
Best for: treating poor circulation, posture problems, lower back pain
Best massages for rejuvenation and improving overall health
In general, massage therapy should make you feel physically, mentally and emotionally relieved. Some massage types are better at giving you that energy boost than others.
7. Shiatsu massage
Shiatsu is an ancient Japanese massage. Literally translating to ‘finger pressure’, shiatsu is a combination of gentle stretches and varying pressures applied using the fingers onto various points of the body. In some ways, it’s similar in theory to acupuncture and acupressure as it believes stimulating different points of the body can encourage the flow of vital energy through the body. When this energy flow is disrupted, you become ill and shiatsu is intended to fix any energetic imbalance. Research has found that shiatsu calms an overactive sympathetic nervous system, helping to improve circulation, soothing stiff muscles and easing stress. Patients have reported that the massage relieves them of their stress and chronic pain.
Best for: headaches, migraines, back pain, lack of energy
8. Thai massage
Thai massage is an ancient therapy that’s said to have been created by the Buddha’s own physician. It is an extremely invigorating full body massage that is a blend of manual therapy and assisted yoga (Thai massage is sometimes known as ‘yoga for the lazy’). The therapist will deeply manipulate your body, assisting you into a series of yoga-inspired stretches. Unlike other massage styles, the therapist will use not only their hands but their forearms, knees, legs and even feet to apply pressure onto your tight muscles and manoeuvre you into positions to loosen your joints. Although it sounds painful, Thai massage is actually very energising and relaxing.
Best for: Boosting energy, increasing flexibility and joint mobility, improving overall health and wellbeing
9. Sports massage
As the name might suggest, sports massage is a therapy that was designed especially for the very physically active – from professional athletes to regular gym goers. It is a combination of different massage styles, including Swedish, deep tissue and shiatsu. A sports massage focuses on key areas of the body that are exposed to the most strain due to your sport. It’s meant to release tension from the overworked muscles (even athletes get tired!), enhance circulation so tissues receive more nutrients and heal faster, speed up the recovery time, warm up muscles and break down scar tissue. Because of this, athletes often incorporate sports massage into their regime to pave the way for premium performance, prevent injury, improve recovery and keep their minds clear from anxieties and focused on their goals.
Best for: athletes, sports injuries, warming muscles up for intense exercise
The massages above are some of the most popular styles you can find, but the list isn’t conclusive – there are many other types as well. All massages are ultimately Regardless of which massage you end up going for, it’s important to talk with your therapist before the session, discussing what parts of your body are troubling you, what goals you would like to achieve and if you have any health conditions. It’s also important that you communicate with your therapist during the massage so they know if you’re experiencing any discomforts and know not to persist so they don’t injure you. When you find a therapist that you like and become accustomed to them, you might want to book regular appointments with them in order to stay pain and stress-free all year long.
Massage therapy is increasing its influence throughout the medical community and more and more physicians are recommending it alongside traditional methods of treatment. Massage is a completely natural approach, unlike medications. In a 2011 interview with NWI Times, Mike Hovi, Illinois chapter president for the American Massage Therapy Association, said: “Look at all the commercials on TV for drugs. You hear what the drug can do and then listen to all the side effects, everything from a heart attack to strokes, to death to suicidal tendencies. Well, there are no real side effects to doing massage.”