History of Massage

Massage therapy has a long history in cultures around the world. Today, people use many different types of massage therapy for a variety of health-related purposes. In the United States, massage therapy is often considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), although it does have some conventional uses. This fact sheet provides a general overview of massage therapy and suggests sources for additional information for the history of massage.

History of MassageHistory of Massage

Massage therapy dates back thousands of years. References to massage appear in writings from ancient China, Japan, India, Arabic nations, Egypt, Greece (Hippocrates defined medicine as “the art of rubbing”), and Rome.

Massage became widely used in Europe during the Renaissance. In the 1850s, two American physicians who had studied in Sweden introduced massage therapy in the United States, where it became popular and was promoted for a variety of health purposes. With scientific and technological advances in medical treatment during the 1930s and 1940s, massage fell out of favor in the United States. Interest in massage revived in the 1970s, especially among athletes.

Massage spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance period. In the 1800s, Per Henrik Ling (1776–1839) developed Swedish massage, a combination of massage and gymnastic exercises. George and Charles Taylor, two physicians who studied in Sweden, introduced massage therapy to the United States in the 1850s. By the early 1930s, massage became a less prominent part of American medicine because of increased focus on the biological sciences. Interest increased in the 1970s, when massage became popular among athletes as a therapy to help heal injuries and reduce pain. People were also using therapy as a way to improve well-being, help with relaxation, relieve stress relief, and enhance sleep and quality-of-life.

History of Massage Therapies

There are many types of therapy. Most involve the use of fixed or moving pressure on the muscles and soft tissues. Practitioners may use their hands, forearms, elbows, or feet with or without lubricants, such as oils, to improve the smoothness of massage strokes. Touch is central to massage. It allows therapists to locate painful or tense areas, to determine how much pressure to apply, and to establish a therapeutic relationship with clients.
Swedish massage involves several techniques:
  • Effleurage — Superficial stroking in a direction away from the heart or deep stroking toward the heart
  • Friction — Deep muscle stimulation using the palm, elbow and forearm
  • Petrissage — Kneading in a circular pattern using the fingers and thumbs, as a way to improve circulation and stimulate muscle tissues
  • Tapotement — Rhythmic movements, such as slapping or tapping, to stimulate the muscles. This technique is often used for athletes before competitions.
  • Vibration — This technique is delivered by the therapist’s hands or by an electric vibrator.
There are many other massage approaches used throughout the world. Examples include:
  • Aromatherapy massage uses essential oils with the goal of enhancing healing and relaxation.
  • Bindegewebsmassage focuses on connective tissues between the skin and muscles. It is based on the theory that some health problems are caused by imbalances in these tissues.
  • Classical massage is used to help people feel calm and relaxed. It is also used to encourage self-healing and revitalization.
  • Craniosacral therapists strive to locate and realign imbalances or blockages that are thought to exist in the soft tissues or fluids of the back and head.
  • Deep tissue massage uses slow strokes, friction, and direct pressure across the muscles with the fingers, thumbs, or elbows. Often, the goal of this therapy is to improve long-lasting muscular tension.
  • Esalen massage focuses on generating a deep state of relaxation. It is often combined with other forms of massage.
  • Ice massage has been studied for knee osteoarthritis, exercise-induced muscle damage and labor pain, with inconclusive results.
  • Jin Shin Do involves applying finger pressure to acupoints of the body to release muscular tension or stress.
  • Manual lymph drainage uses light, rhythmic strokes as a way to improve lymphatic flow and reduce swelling or nerve problems (called neuropathy).
  • Myofascial release may be used by physical therapists, chiropractors or massage therapists. This approach involves gentle traction, pressure and body positioning to relax and stretch soft tissues.
  • Neuromuscular massage, triggerpoint massage and myotherapy are forms of deep massage that are performed on specific muscles or nerve points. These therapies are used to release trigger points or entrapped nerves and to relieve pain.
  • On-site or chair massage is administered to the upper body of fully clothed clients.
  • Physiotherapy is performed to help stabilize the lower back in a flexed posture and to increase overall physical fitness.
  • Polarity treatment is based on the concept that rebalancing the body’s energy fields with gentle massage may improve health and well-being.
  • Reflexology aims to return the body to its natural balance by targeting certain areas on the feet or ears that are thought to correspond to specific body parts.
  • Rolfing® structural integration involves deep tissue massage. The goal is to relieve stress as well as improve mobility, posture, balance, muscle function and efficiency, energy, and overall well-being.
  • Shiatsu emphasizes finger pressure at acupoints and along the body’s meridians. This type of massage may incorporate palm pressure, stretching, and other manual techniques.
  • Sports massage is similar to Swedish massage, except is adapted specifically for athletes.
  • St. John’s neuromuscular technique may be used for long-lasting pain conditions that involve the musclesand bones.
  • The Trager approach involves relearning patterns of movement to improve efficiency and well-being.
  • Tibetan massage may be performed on many different areas of the body, based on the practitioner’s judgment of the patient’s energy flow.
Many other styles of massage exist, and many therapies are specific to certain regions of the world.

Most massage approaches involve the client lying face down on a platform or table with a sheet covering the lower body. Depending on the technique, sessions may last 15 to 90 minutes. Many clients fall asleep during therapy. The environment is considered important. Massage therapy is usually performed in a comfortable, warm, quiet location. Soothing, repetitive, low-volume music or sounds may be played in the background. Massage therapy may be performed in a therapist’s home, a private practice office, a hospital, spa, athletic club, hair salon, hotel, airport, or outdoors. Some practitioners will travel to a client’s home or office. Sports massage may be administered in a gym or locker-room setting.

In the United States, licensure requirements for massage therapists vary from state to state. Some practitioners are licensed as nurses, physical therapists, massage therapists, or other types of healthcare professionals. Some have attended extensive programs that grant professional degrees. However, many massage practitioners are not licensed, and national or international organizations have not agreed on standards. The International Therapy Examinations Council offers testing in this area.
Patients who are seeking massage therapists for medical reasons are encouraged to discuss the choice of massage practitioner with their primary health care providers. References and training history should be checked before starting a therapeutic program.

History of Massage Theory

There are many theories about how massage may work, although none has been scientifically proven. There is limited research in this area. It is suggested that massage may have local effects on muscles and soft tissues, reduce swelling, soften or stretch scar tissue, reduce the buildup of lactic acid in muscles, stimulate oxygenation of tissues, break up scar tissue, cause muscle relaxation, and improve the healing of soft tissues or damaged muscles. Other proposed effects include immune system enhancement, reduction of blood pressure, central nervous system relaxation and sedation, parasympathetic stimulation, blockage of sensations from nerves that sense pain (the “gate theory”), stimulation of blood and lymphatic circulation, decreases in heart rate, increases in skin temperature, endorphin release, changes in hormone levels (such as cortisol), stimulation of substance P release, stimulation of somatostatin release, sleep enhancement, or removal of blood toxins. Practitioners suggest that Swedish massage may help the body deliver nutrients and remove waste products from tissues.

There is little high-quality research of massage. Scientifically based conclusions about the effectiveness of massage cannot be drawn at this time for any health condition. This should cover the basics of the History of Massage.