Swedish massage is one of the most well-known styles of massage. Often referred to as “the classic massage”, a Swedish massage is probably what first springs to mind when you think about a massage. It is arguably the most common style of massage in the West and if it’s your first time at a spa or you don’t get massages very often, a Swedish massage is one of the best places to start.
A brief history of Swedish massage
A Swedish massage forms the foundations for many other well-known therapies such as modern sports massage and deep tissue massage, but it’s actually relatively young compared to some of its fellow massage styles. Most massage texts and articles credit the development of Swedish massage techniques to Pehr Henrik Ling in 1812.
However Johann Georg Mezger, a Dutch practitioner, is actually the one who adapted and created the terms for the basic strokes used in Swedish massage. It doesn’t really matter who developed it, because Swedish massage techniques aren’t original – they are based on techniques from all around the world and from different eras. By the end of the 19th century, almost everyone thought that they were experts on Swedish massages and there were plenty of books, detailing and illustrating the techniques, written by physicians and non-physicians alike. Since this time, Swedish massage has been used for medicinal and therapeutic purposes.
What is a Swedish massage?
Swedish massage is a type of massage that uses gentle but firm pressure to stimulate blood circulation and soothe tense, sore muscles. Generally considered to be a full body massage as it is performed on all of the body’s major muscle groups, Swedish massage stretches the tendons and ligaments, and relaxes the muscles. The massage helps to flush metabolic waste such as uric and lactic acid from the body’s tissues. The techniques used in the therapy have been drawn from other ancient styles of massage but form the foundations for other types of Western massage, particularly the sports massage.
The term ‘Swedish massage’ is only really used in Dutch and English-speaking countries. Everywhere else, the Swedish massage is known as the ‘classic massage’ even in Sweden. If you go to get a massage and don’t specify the type of massage, chances are you will get a Swedish massage as it’s the most taught and popular choice among therapists. It is known as the classic massage for a reason!
The Swedish massage is also considered to be massage that’s best for beginners, as it’s firm yet gentle so the muscles aren’t deeply stimulated and there’s no discomfort involved. You will lie on your stomach on an elevated massage table with a cut-out for your face. The therapist will start with long, firm strokes that brush along your back, then over your shoulders, arms and down your lower back and legs. Halfway through the session, you’ll be asked to turn over. The therapist will then repeat the strokes over your upper shoulders, arms and fronts of legs.
Typically, massage therapists use the flat side of their palms, heel of their hands or a grouped formation of fingertips to deliver pressure to tense spots. This may also help loosen and lengthen muscles. Kathleen Jensen, director of operations for Massage Envy Spa in San Diego, told Livestrong.com that Swedish massage is quite distinct from other styles of massage, despite its techniques influencing them.
She said: “Unlike strictly pressure-point styles of massage like shiatsu or stretching techniques such as Thai massage where a masseuse manipulates you while on the floor, Swedish massage is designed specifically to enhance circulation and blood flow to the large muscle groups.”
Why is Swedish massage so popular?
The massage’s popularity has rocketed over the decades. It’s a very popular choice for holistic, therapeutic purposes or just for maintaining a steady state of good health. Fans of Swedish massage swear by its benefits and there have been many studies that examined the therapy’s benefits for problems other than just muscle stiffness, aches and pains. Over the decades, researchers and scientists have linked Swedish massage to various benefits, especially ones related to specific illnesses and conditions. As well as promoting relaxation, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress, it may reduce pain in knee arthritis, carpal tunnel syndromes and fibromyalgia. Primarily, there have been studies to show the link between Swedish massage and osteoarthritis.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis which causes the joints to become stiff and painful. It’s one of the most common types of arthritis in the UK and according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, it causes more physical limitations than lung disease, heart disease and diabetes.
Osteoarthritis is where the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones break down, which causes painful swelling and limited joint mobility. Bony growths may develop and the area becomes red and swollen. Your joints are exposed to a low but consistent level of damage on a daily basis. Generally, your body repairs the damage itself and you don’t experience any serious symptoms. However as you grow older, this becomes more difficult and so osteoarthritis is more prevalent in people aged 50 or over. It’s not exactly clear why osteoarthritis develops, but there are certain factors that may increase the risks:
- Joint injury
- Family history
- Secondary arthritis
How can osteoarthritis be treated?
Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is a long-term chronic condition that can’t be cured, but there are ways to lessen the pain and ensure that it doesn’t get worse over time. Sometimes, the symptoms can gradually improve. Mild symptoms can be managed with:
- Regular exercise
- Losing weight (if you’re overweight)
- Suitable footwear
- Using special devices and equipment to reduce the daily strain on your joints
Severe symptoms may require additional treatments such as painkillers and a structured exercise regime carried out with a physiotherapist. If the symptoms are extremely severe and can’t be improved by the above treatments, surgery may be considered to repair, strengthen or replace a joint.
The study looking into the link between Swedish massage and osteoarthritis
It’s not possible to prevent osteoarthritis as it’s a degenerative disease and unfortunately it can’t be cured. However, Swedish massage is one therapy that has been said to reduce and improve joint function in people suffering from osteoarthritis. In 2006, researchers from Yale Prevention Research Centre and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) held a clinical trial to assess the effectiveness of Swedish massage in treating osteoarthritis. 68 participants, who were at least 35 years of age and had osteoarthritis in their knee, were randomly separated into two groups – one that received massage immediately and another (the control group) that received massage after eight weeks delay.
The first group received one hour of Swedish massage twice a week for four weeks and then Swedish massage once a week for four weeks. After this period of consistent massage therapy, participants reported they had improved flexibility, joint mobility and suffered from less pain. The control group (who received massage for eight weeks delay) continued with their usual treatment plan showed no change in their condition while not receiving massage. When they did receive the massage, they experienced benefits similar to the first group and while they were significant, the extent was less compared to the first group.
Senior investigator of the study and director of Yale’s Prevention Research Centre David L Katz MD said in the original release published on Science Daily: “Massage is free of any known side effects and according to our results, clearly shows therapeutic promise.”
Alternative therapies and treatments like massage are important when traditional choices are far from ideal. The drugs that are available, usually non-steroid anti-inflammatory medication, are usually not well-tolerated by older adults suffering from osteoarthritis. There are alternatives to traditional anti-inflammatories but these have toxicity problems. Massage, on the other hand, is a form of manual therapy that puts nothing into the body and only requires external stimulation. When combined with medication, it can make leaps and bounds in regards to improvement.
Adam Perlman MD co-conducted the study with Katz. He said in the original 2006 release: “Our results suggest that massage therapy can be used in conjunction with conventional treatment for osteoarthritis.
“Ultimately, massage may be shown to lessen a patient’s reliance on medications and decrease health care costs.”
How Swedish massage helps: the summary
It seems that regular massage sessions helps significantly improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis, particularly when used alongside the sufferer’s usual treatment plan. There are over 80 types of massage available, Swedish massage being one of them. In theory, massage is a manipulation of the body’s muscles and soft tissues. Therapists can use their hands, fingers, thumbs, forearms elbows and even their knees and feet but it’s the technique that varies. Swedish massage uses long, firm strokes and deep kneading to gently warm up the area, relax stiff muscles and increase blood circulation to the area. Joints are also gently moved to improve flexibility – something that’s crucial in helping with osteoarthritis (as it’s where the joints are stiff).
Pro’s of using Swedish massage to treat osteoarthritis
- Relieves pain and reduces stiffness of joints
- Improved flexibility of joints
- Overall reduction in painful symptoms so makes the condition easier to live with
- Reduces patient’s reliance on medication
- Long-lasting benefits
- Very accessible – most therapists are trained in it so it’s very easy to find
- Completely natural treatment (doesn’t put anything into the body)
- Increases blood circulation
- Reduces blood pressure
- Reduces stress, anxiety and insomnia
- Boosts immune and digestive systems
Con’s of using Swedish massage to treat osteoarthritis
- Expense (initially regular sessions may add up but in the long run, it’s cheaper because it reduces pain and your reliance on medication)
- Time consuming
- Intimacy (massage receivers are usually naked or semi-naked so the therapist can fully stimulate their body and some people may be uncomfortable with that)
- Accidental injuries (there’s always a risk of worsening your symptoms although therapists are highly trained and this is unlikely)
- Unintentional aftereffects (if the only time you can get a massage is during your lunch hour, you may have to return to work with oiled skin and feeling so sleepily relaxed)
What to expect from a typical Swedish massage session
A typical Swedish massage lasts around 60 – 90 minutes. Your therapist will give you privacy while you undress and lie down on the massage table. Although you’re naked, you don’t have to be completely exposed at any point and you may cover yourself with towels. The therapist will uncover one little bit of your body at a time, depending on the area she’s working on, so you don’t have to worry about being completely naked all at once.
Your therapist will choose essential oils or lotions to suit your skin type. These will be massaged into your body using a series of long strokes, techniques and varied pressures specific to the part of your body and the goal you want to achieve. You might experience long, gliding strokes down your spine, kneading the backs of your shoulders or rubbing the small of your back. The therapist will adapt her movements to suit your needs, so don’t be afraid to say what feels nice and what feels uncomfortable.
Music may be playing and scented candles burning in the background to help you to relax. Being content and comfortable in your surroundings is important for relaxation and will help you lose yourself to the massage’s sensations. Don’t feel pressured to speak. This varies from person to person – some people like to chat, others like to keep the chat to a minimum so they can truly soak in the session. As long as you’re comfortable and relaxed, it doesn’t matter.
After your massage, your muscles will feel supple and you will feel very relaxed – maybe even sleepy, so give yourself time to unwind. Savour this sensation.
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