Types of Massage, A to Z

back massageThe word “massage” covers an awful lot, and it can be overwhelming if you try and give it a single, clear definition. Most definitions state that massage is the “manipulation of tissues (as by rubbing, kneading, or tapping) with the hand or an instrument for therapeutic purposes.” That’s great! But it doesn’t really tell you anything about what you’re actually getting when you decide to receive a massage.

Finding the right type of massage can be a challenge, but it is well worth the effort. To assist you, here’s an alphabetical list of all things massage therapy!

Animal Massage

Just like people, animals can experience tension, soreness, and injury. Any animal that will let you put your hands on it can benefit from massage therapy. Yes, even elephants.

This is especially true in the case of animal athletes like canine agility training or equestrian sports, just as human athletes derive unique benefits from massage. Horses in particular undergo a lot of stress, with a rider to carry or a cart to pull.

Animals with injuries also respond well to massage therapy. Be cautious of each specific situation – as you would with a human client – and make sure you get veterinary approval for anything of concern. Geriatric style massage for animals in their senior years is also beneficial.

Certain breeds of dog like German Shepards and Bulldogs are more prone to hip dysplasia, and massage can ease pain for the lovable family pet. Massage can also improve the quality of life for  Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, and Beagles all prone to spine and disc issues.

Training in animal massage can range from home study courses to full hands-on training at an established facility. Be sure to check the laws in your particular state and county (and your liability insurance coverage!) before providing animal massage.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the practice of using natural oils extracted from plant parts like petals, leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and bark, including essential oils, to enhance psychological and physical well-being. Inhaled scents are believed to stimulate the brain, while absorption through the skin and into the bloodstream promotes healing. There is a wide number of essential oils available, each with it’s own specific use and healing properties.

Two common examples of aromatherapy oils are peppermint and chamomile. Peppermint can wake the senses, making you alert without feeling jittery, while chamomile helps with anxiety and calms the mind.

Lavender is renown for its calming properties, and eucalyptus is a go-to essential oil to clear the sinuses during cold and flu season.

Clearly, how and where you use essential oils depends what you hope to accomplish. Massamio offers an aromatherapy guide book that is loaded with fantastic information and covers everything from history to effective uses of aromatherapy. [1]

Ashiatsu Oriental Bar Therapy

Ashiatsu (ashi – foot and atsu – pressure) is a gentle style of massage therapy that is performed with the therapist’s bare feet. During an ashiatsu massage, the therapist applies pressure with her feet while holding onto overhead bars for balance. Pressure in ashiatsu massage can range from light to very deep. Both the client and therapist benefit from ashiatsu massage. The client is able to receive continuous deep pressure as the feet are broader than the hands, while the therapist gets to rest her hands and wrists, preventing injury from overuse and prolonging her career.

Traditional Asian Medicine

While not a type of massage, Asian medicine is often used as a complement to massage therapy, and various traditional forms of massage may be part of a client’s treatment. Acupuncture, acupressure, and other Asian treatments can work extremely well with massage occurring before or after a session.

Tui Na has been said to be a cross between Shiatsu and acupressure. It’s based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and has been used in China for 2,000 years. Tui Na massage is typically therapeutic in purpose, focusing on specific dysfunctions, which is why this form of massage is taught in traditional Chinese medical colleges.

Aston Kinetics

Created by Judith Aston, this system uses massage, myofascial release, and movement education to promote ease in everyday activities and fitness. Aston Kinetics addresses clients’ perceptions of their bodies’ natural form and function, including how gravity and other physical forces impact the body.

In Aston Kinetics, careful attention is paid to neutral alignment, but also keeps in mind the desired posture of specific sports or activities, such as the ideal spinal curvature of a road cyclist. Cooperative movement throughout the whole body promotes strength and an overall balance in the muscles.

Bamboo Fusion

Massages given with a set of warmed and oiled bamboo tools can soothe and relax even the deepest muscle tension. The creator of Bamboo Fusion massage, Nathalie Cecilia, started using bamboo to assist with her deep tissue work. She found that the pain in her hands and wrists dissipated, and her clients loved the experience.

Bamboo Fusion massage can be useful on the table, in the chair, or even as part of a facial massage. Bamboo tools require very little setup or maintenance, and they hold heat well. Bamboo is a great tool for applying Swedish or deep tissue techniques with very little strain to the hands or wrists.

Chair Massage

Sporting events, corporate events, lunch breaks, mall settings, conferences, fairs, and festivals, oh my! Easily portable and suitable for just about any occasion, chair massage requires little space and few supplies. Besides a massage chair, all that’s required is hand sanitizer, face cradle covers, sanitizing wipes or spray for the chair, a trash bin, and mini intake forms. Business cards an email sign-up sheet are also great for helping satisfied customers to come back again for more.

Chair massage has the ability to help clients relax, de-stress, and relieve tension in a very short amount of time. Every massage therapist should own a massage chair. For clients that recently had surgery, are pregnant, or cannot lie down for some other reason, a massage chair means they can still receive massage.

If you do enjoy chair massage, well the sky’s the limit. Opportunities are available for standing corporate gigs (think regular 10 minute massages in an office), events, and volunteer work will all be within arms reach.  You can find more tips and tricks for successful chair massage here.

Craniosacral Therapy (CST)

Craniosacral therapy involves light touch on the bones; skull (including face and mouth), spine, and sacrum to relieve tension and increase movement of the body. The therapist focuses on rhythmic movements related to the flow of cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The pressure is extremely subtle, often using no more pressure than the weight of a nickel on the skin.

This treatment is particularly helpful for clients with attention deficit disorder, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD), and issues with the immune and nervous systems. People with many other disorders or who find deeper, more vigorous forms of massage painful may also find relief with craniosacral therapy.

Because it works directly with the nervous system, craniosacral therapy may be useful in treating Sensory Integration Disorder and other issues associated with Autism and Autism Spectrum disorders. Research in this area is ongoing and varied.

Esalen

Primarily used as relaxation massage, Esalen incorporates many different techniques from other massage styles, such as Swedish massage, craniosacral therapy, deep tissue massage, shiatsu, and Thai massage.  Some describe the experience of receiving Esalen as being similar to a slower, gentler version of Swedish massage. The Esalen Institute located in Big Sur, California describes this as a modality “to give you the tools to unleash latent capacities and re-energize your sense of purpose — for yourself and the world.”

Esalen is a unique combination of an inn, school, spa, sanctuary, and a church, but doesn’t claim to be any of them exclusively – just contains a little bit of each to provide a blended experience.

Feldenkrais Method

While Feldenkrais is not a massage technique, it does involve hands-on treatment, and many Feldenkrais practitioners are also trained as massage therapists. In this unique approach, practitioners re-educate their clients to move more efficiently. Since the body and brain have already developed habitual ways of moving, unusual movements that are not practiced in everyday life may be used as a way to build new patterns. Feldenkrais integrates aspects of anatomy, physiology, physics, engineering, psychology, martial arts and neurology to train the body and mind to adopt healthier patterns of movement and self-awareness.[2]

The Feldenkrais Method focuses on the relationship between movement and thought. Using less effort to move makes life easier and improves client wellbeing. This method also relies on client involvement and self-awareness.

Geriatric Massage

Geriatric massage is not a single technique, but rather encompasses the use of massage for the elderly. Since older people tend to have thinner and more delicate tissues, deep tissue massage is not suitable for many geriatric clients. Deep pressure and friction techniques can cause pain and/or bruising. It should be noted that lotion or oil must be used during treatment as older people generally have very fragile skin.

People suffering from conditions and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s find massage therapy to be very beneficial when it comes to mood elevation, comfort, and improved sleep quality. As with any form of massage, it is important to tailor treatments to each geriatric client individually, keeping in mind the client’s activity level and getting a doctor’s approval when necessary.

Hospice Massage

End-of-life massage provides unique challenges many practitioners, but also equally unique rewards. Touching a dying client is an honor, and a hospice massage therapist’s entire purpose is to enhance the client’s quality of life, for however long it lasts. Bodywork may or may not be needed; sometimes what’s more important is a comforting touch or a hand to hold.

The challenges with this type of modality are obvious. Saying goodbye to a client you have touched during a difficult time can be an emotional struggle. There may be medical devices hooked up to the client, and a large number of medications to be aware of, each with its own contraindications. Or a client may be choosing to die at home, without medical intervention, which brings challenges of its own.

While hospice massage is certainly not for everybody, those massage therapists who feel called to help people die in comfort and dignity know that these struggles are absolutely worthwhile.

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is any form of treatment involving water. Some forms of hydrotherapy include baths, saunas, vichy showers, compresses, contrast baths, and even ice. Hot and cold water can be used. Cold contracts blood vessels and can reduce inflammation, while heat encourages circulation and relaxation. Hydrotherapy reatments can happen in any setting, from a clinic to a spa, to a client’s own home.

Hydrotherapy can make a massage therapist’s job easier. Heat can reduce muscle tension and warm the body before a treatment. Cold can numb an area temporarily, and provide much-needed relief from pain. Clients can also learn to use these methods at home to enhance or prolong the effects of their massage, and avoid future injuries.

In-Home  & Outcall Massage

Just as it sounds, in-home or outcall treatments take place in the client’s home or office. The therapist brings the massage office to directly to the client. Depending on the type of massage, this might include a massage table or chair, linens, and massage oil or lotion. Naturally, most in-home massage therapists prefer to travel light, but it’s important to have all the essentials at hand. Lightweight, easily collapsible equipment and good quality carts are available for massage therapists with an in-home or outcall business in mind.

Of course, it’s important to take extra precautions when traveling to a client’s home or place of business. Best practices include calling someone when you arrive who knows exactly where you are and when you expect to be finished, and calling this person again when you leave. If you feel safer, you might even want to bring a second person with you. Prescreening new clients and taking only referrals from trusted, existing clients are other ways to stay safe. Staying aware of one’s surroundings and maintaining good boundaries are also good practices for anyone, not just those practicing massage!

Chair and sports massage can fall into this category as well, so if this type of massage interests you, make sure you check out those sections as well.

Lomi Lomi

Lomi lomi is the traditional Hawai’ian art of massage. This healing massage is given in fluid, rhythmic motion using the forearms and the hands. The flowing movement takes on the feeling of the ocean waves. During a lomi lomi massage, clients may either be draped in a way similar to draping for a Swedish massage, or in Hawai’ian fashion with minimal draping (modesty being maintained with the use of towels).

Mana Lomi is a similar form of Hawaiian healing but its concept of “communicating down to the bones” both physically and energetically allows room for the therapist and client to work as deeply as they can handle – while being non-invasive and still producing results.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

Manual lymphatic drainage is exactly what the name says: it consists of a series of sequenced, gentle strokes that increases circulation of lymph to promote speedy waste removal from the body. Lymph drainage can reduce swelling in arthritic clients as well as pre- and post-surgical patients. Sinus and congestion along with migraines and headaches can also benefit from manual lymphatic drainage.

The technique is gentle but the results can be very powerful. Manual lymphatic drainage stimulates waste removal, encourages lymph circulation, and drains slow or sluggish lymph nodes, which helps tissues and organs to do their jobs. Lymphatic drainage can be used for sports injuries, edema of many kinds, and a variety of other ailments. It is an effective, powerful, and natural way to cleanse the body’s tissues by draining excess fluid.

Medical/Orthopedic Massage

Orthopedic massage goes a step further than general relaxation massage. It is very individualized and specific to the client’s needs. “Medical massage is not relaxation or stress reduction massage.  It is tissue and body region specific based on the individual’s complaints, primary pathology, and the therapist’s findings.”[3]

Medical massage promotes the healing of both chronic and acute injuries. It uses assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation protocols to develop effective solutions for the client’s particular condition.

Orthopedic massage requires critical thinking – as well as solid knowledge in kinesiology, anatomy, and physiology.  Additional training in medical/orthopedic massage can not only make a massage therapist’s treatments more effective, it can also let potential clients (and their physicians) know that this MT is passionate about and dedicated to rehabilitation work.

Myofascial Release (MFR)

Imagine peeling an orange … see that white stuff that goes in between each orange section? That’s just what fascia looks like in the human body. It’s in and around every fiber. Fascia is soft connective tissue that can be restricted and pulled tight like a rubber band. Myofascial release removes restriction by using gentle, slow pressure that allows the fascia to elongate.

Myofascial release (myo- means muscle, and fascia means, well, fascia) is used to treat chronic pain from headaches, neck issues, and back pain, as well as menstrual troubles and a wide array of other ailments. Myofascial release is not always considered massage, but this manual therapy is within the scope of practice of massage therapists in most places (check your local laws to be sure), and is used to even out muscle tension throughout the body. Uneven muscle tension will cause pain from compressed nerves and muscles.

Myofascial release treatments can take place on a table or floor, depending on the focus of the session. Clients may or may not be dressed in shorts and a tank top for comfort and accessibility.

Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT)

By definition, neuromuscular therapy is the utilization of static pressure on specific myofascial points to relieve pain. In ordinary English, the therapist pushes on trigger points to make them release or feel better. A massage therapist who specializes in this should have further education in kinesiology and biomechanics, as well as an understanding of how neuromuscular therapy can be used in tandem with other treatments, such as physical therapy.

Neuromuscular therapy treats soft tissue pain with a deep therapy approach. It is focused on identifying trigger points that caused referred pain, and releasing muscular tension that is causing pressure on sensitive nerves. Neuromuscular therapy can be beneficial to a client who is suffering from TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder, whiplash, muscle spasms, and rotator cuff injuries.

Oncology/Cancer Massage

Similar to hospice massage, massage for clients with cancer should be approached from a place of compassion and emotional maturity. Oncology massage helps with quality of life, sleep, relaxation, anxiety relief, pain, and immune function. Massage is also helpful for managing the side effects of cancer treatments, including pain, fatigue, anxiety, nausea, and depression. Just as with people’s experiences with cancer in general, one client’s experience with massage may vary greatly from another’s.

Massage therapists should have advanced training before massaging clients with cancer, due to the many cautions and contraindications related to cancer and its various treatments.

Pediatric and Infant Massage

Pediatric and infant massage is massage performed on young (sometimes very young) people. Children of all ages can experience the physical and emotional benefits of a good massage. Infants crave touch, and massage can promote strong social bonds as they develop. Young children suffering from growing pains and other issues ranging from everyday injuries to congenital defects to insomnia may get relief from massage as well.

It should also be noted that teen massage is becoming quite popular. From highly competitive sports to dealing with stress and depression, teens are turning to massage therapy to help them manage their pain from injuries, daily struggles, growing bodies, and heavy workloads.

Typically, consent forms must be signed by a parent or guardian for all clients under the age of 18. Each state may have their own rules governing massage performed on minors, so it’s good to check in before giving it a go. There is great training available for people who are interested in pediatric massage as well. [4]

Prenatal (Pregnancy) Massage

Pregnancy massage offer great benefits for mothers-to-be, ranging from stress reduction and mood elevation to reduced swelling and improvement in nerve pain. Pregnant clients who receive massage may sleep better, experience less pain, and lower their risk of birth complications. [5]

During pregnancy, lots of changes occur in the body, including loosened ligaments and shifting proprioception. Massage therapy can increase body awareness, relax tightened muscles, and improve the quality of rest. Conditions such as sciatica, swelling, and anxiety can also be managed.

Massage during labor can decrease pain from back labor and contractions. The lower a woman’s stress levels are during labor, the less contraction pain she experiences.

Postnatal massage can also play a role in a new mother’s physical, emotional, and mental recovery. From constipation to aches and pains, massage will help provide relief, including a much needed time-out.

Shiatsu

The Shiatsu Therapy Association of Australia states, “Shiatsu is a holistic healing art developed in Japan and based on traditional 3500-year-old oriental medical wisdom while incorporating the principles of anatomy, physiology, and pathology.”[6] A massage  therapist who practices shiatsu applies pressure with the thumbs, fingers, and palms in a rhythmic, flowing sequence.

Literally translated as “finger pressure,” Shiatsu massage balances the energy flow of meridians (energy pathways) by using comfortable pressure with the fingers and thumbs. Gentle stretching may also be included. This type of massage is generally given while the client is fully dressed in loose, comfortable clothing.

Spa Massage

Treatments taking place in a spa may include a wide variety of massage modalities, as well as other treatments. It generally falls under the “relaxation massage” category but therapeutic modalities definitely trickle in. Salt or sugar scrubs, mud peels and masks, yoga and other wellness classes, sauna, and other-spa related treatments can all be added to a massage session (under the supervision of a trained individual, who might or might not also be a massage therapist).

While massage treatments received in a spa setting do not have to be light, gentle massage absolutely has its benefits. The term “therapeutic” refers to alleviating clients’ discomfort, whatever form that discomfort takes. If a client bruises easily, has had a traumatic experience, or just needs someone to care for them – relaxation massage may in fact be the most therapeutic choice.

Of course, location does not dictate modality. Fabulous deep tissue massage can certainly be found in a spa just as Swedish massage can be found in many clinical settings.

Sports Massage and Performance Massage

While orthopedic massage is geared towards injury recovery in general, sports massage focuses on specific areas of the body and uses techniques intended to improve athletic performance in a particular sport. This includes, but is not limited to, rehabilitation after an injury. Sports massage techniques have also been expanded to include performing artists such as dancers and musicians, who also train their bodies intensely. “Performance massage” encompasses both of these groups.

Pre-and-post event treatments are popular and in some cases (depending on the sport) massage can be performed during the event. Generally, pre-event massage is given to invigorate the muscles. It is rigorous and the techniques have an energetic quality to them. This gets the body moving and ready for action. Post-event massage does the opposite; it serves to calm and restore the body. This helps to slow things down with elongating strokes and possibly some stretching.

Stone Massage (Hot/Cold)

Hot stone massage will encourage relaxation, help manage stress, loosen muscles, increase the quality of sleep, and will overall just make you happy. This type of massage can be performed two ways: By placing the stones or by using the stones.

Placing heated stones on specific points of the client’s body (never directly on the skin!) can encourage the softening of muscle tension. Therapists also use stones as a hand-held massage tool to add weight and heat to their strokes.

Cold stone massage can be equally powerful, and is generally performed with a smooth type of stone, such as marble. Inflammation, sports injuries, sinus pain, and menstrual symptoms can all be helped with the use of cold stones. Cold stones help draw heat from the body and feel amazing on a hot summer day. Hot and cold stones can also be used together in a single treatment.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is one of the most popular massage modalities in the Western world. Most people have heard of Swedish massage before, even if they haven’t necessarily learned what the term means. Swedish massage consists of gliding, kneading, vibration, and percussion techniques, as well as passive touch. Combined, these form the foundation of most massage therapist’s education. This technique has a deep relaxation and stress-reducing effect, and is increasingly being used in clinical settings, including post-surgery.

Thai Massage

Sometimes called “lazy man’s yoga,” Thai massage consists primarily of a wide variety of passive stretches that the massage therapist applies to the client’s body. Performed on a mat on the floor, clients receiving this massage are usually fully clothed without shoes and socks. The therapist uses almost every part of their extremities (hands, forearms, elbows, feet, shins, and knees) to stretch the recipient.

Thai massage has a wide variety of benefits, including better alignment, flexibility, and balance of the skeletal structure. Recipients of Thai massage may also experience a new awareness of their physical body and an increase in energy levels.

Trager Approach

The Trager Approach is an intuitive and unusual form of bodywork. “Utilizing gentle, non-intrusive, natural movements, The Trager Approach helps release deep-seated physical and mental patterns.It facilitates deep relaxation, increased physical mobility, and mental clarity.” [7]  The client receives movements that follow the natural flow of the body. The technique is never forced or invasive so the client should not experience any discomfort or pain.

Trager massage uses rocking, movement, and soft/playful bouncing of the clients limbs and muscles that fosters a profoundly deep relaxation and trance-like state of being. Not only is it effective, it’s completely pain-free. Benefits run the gamut from stress reduction to an increase in athletic performance.

Trager Practitioners are encouraged to perform self-care movements, called Mentastics (mental gymnastics), which frees the mind and body from old dysfunctional patterns. This helps keep the practitioner balanced and free from injury.

Trigger Point Therapy

Massage that incorporates trigger point therapy uses direct pressure to alleviate specific points of pain and tension. Trigger points send referred pain to other areas of the body when pressure is applied. Muscular tension, aches, and pains can be relieved by manual techniques applied by a therapist or by tool specifically made for this type of therapy.

Trigger point work targets tight spots within the muscle, and can be performed as an in-office treatment by a therapist or as a self care program by the client. There are many tools and systems on the market geared toward trigger point therapy. Benefits of this modality range from keeping the client posturally in balance, shortened recovery time, and keeping injuries at bay. Also see the section on Neuromuscular Therapy for more information.

And that’s it!

This is just a brief list of different styles of massage. Each style has its own history, teachers, and beliefs. Continuing education is extremely important when considering a specific massage path. Follow your heart to whatever method, modality, or medical condition that appeals to you. And make sure you never perform massage out of your scope of practice.

Resources

1. Massamio
2. Oakworks Blog
3. Writing a Blue Streak
4. LiddleKidz
5. American Pregnancy Association
6. Shiatsu Therapy Association of Austrialia
7. Trager Approach