Dear Lifehacker, I really need a massage, but I’m confused by the dozens of different types to choose from. What’s the difference between a Swedish massage, a deep tissue massage and a Shiatsu massage? How do I know which one to pick?
Thanks, Sore All Over
A good massage is truly a treat and offers many health benefits. As you’ve noted, massage places tend to offer lots of options on their services menus. In fact, there are over 200 different massage techniques and types, all treating different needs and providing various benefits. Let’s break it down. Here are nine of the most popular types of massages and when you might want to choose them.
Massages for Relaxation and Stress Relief
Some massages are more soothing than others, leaving you feeling like you’ve been wrapped in a cloud and the “reset” button pressed on your body.
This is the most common type of massage therapy, and what many people are thinking about when they hear the word “massage” or try to give someone else or themselves a good massage. Swedish massage uses a combination of these basic movements:
- Long, sweeping strokes (effleurage), usually used at the start and end of a massage
- Muscle kneading and rolling (petrissage), where the muscles are worked on just like kneading dough
- Friction, where deep pressure is applied to a particular spot with the thumb, fingertips, or knuckles
- Rhythmic tapping (tapotement), fast percussion movements like chopping and even pounding. (About.com notes, however, that percussion techniques have fallen out of favour for Swedish massages because they’re not relaxing — the way that karate chops to your naked, oiled body could be distracting)
Best for: An intro to massage, stress relief, relaxation, releasing cramped or tense muscles, couples massage
Hot Stone Massage
During hot stone massage, your body is not only weighted down with hot, smooth stones, but the masseuse also uses the stones to massage your body. It’s like being caressed by the smoothest (rollerball-like) hands, but also being scorched by them for a “Yeeooowwww!….Ahhhhh” effect. A hot stone massage is mostly relaxing, but it also is more invigorating than your run-of-the-mill massage, thanks to the almost-too-much heat bringing you back to focus on the moment instead of letting you drift off. The heat helps release the tension in your back and shoulders, mostly, so those muscles can be worked on more effectively.
Best for: Releasing very tense muscles, relaxation
You’ve probably seen these strange contraptions at conventions, the shopping centre, nail salons, and maybe even your office. Chair massages have you sitting face forward in a chair so the therapist can massage mostly your neck, shoulders, and back. The good thing is you don’t have to take off your clothes or have oils slathered all over you. The bad thing is you don’t get a thorough whole-body massage as you do with other methods, and, since this is often done in public places, it can be very distracting and not as relaxing. Depending on the massage therapist, however, a chair massage can really get the tension out of your upper body.
You might see other kinds of chair massages, such as massage chairs in shopping centres. But you might as well buy a good massage pillow for home.
Best for: Quick massages when you’ve been walking all day, stress relief
Massages for Treating Pain and Specific Conditions
Traditional massages are great when you just need a little stress relief and relaxation. When you have knotted muscles, however, or have more specific ailments, more attentive techniques are required.
Deep Tissue Massage
As the name suggests, deep tissue massage applies deep pressure onto specific trouble points. It feels very much like someone is torturing you on purpose by pushing into your knotted muscle, and the massage can leave you feeling sore. It’s not just more pressure all over your body, however (which would be true torture), it’s very specific, methodical treatment. As Moyer Wellness explains:
Deep Tissue is a very specific massage treatment in which the therapist uses knuckles and elbow’s to “strip out” muscle tissue as far down to the bone as possible. Sound invasive? It is! It is definitely not for everyone. However there are millions of people out there that would never have their treatment any other way. This modality can be helpful to the following people: athletes who are considerably harder on their bodies than the average person, people who are undergoing physical therapy to aid in the breakdown process of scar tissue, (AFTER PROPER HEALING FROM THE INJURY HAS OCCURED), or anyone who has very dense tissue and thus responds better to the work.
…It is very important to ALWAYS speak up and let your therapist know if you need the pressure to be corrected, (i.e. if you need them to lighten up because it is too deep, or to apply more because it is not deep enough). Most everyone needs more pressure in some areas and less in others. This occurs because muscle tissue that contains Trigger Points is more sensitive to pressure and can be tender to the touch.
This is not the kind of massage to ask for if you expect to feel relaxed during the therapy, and afterwards you might feel sore for a couple of days.
Best for: Treating stiff, painful trouble spots, such as the shoulder and neck
Trigger Point Massage
Like Deep Tissue Massage, Trigger Point Massage focuses on specific areas of the body, rather than massaging the whole body. In this technique, the therapist pinpoints exactly the “problem” muscle and coaxes it with deep pressure to relax. Massage chain Massage Envy explains:
A trigger point is a tight area within muscle tissue that causes pain in other parts of the body. A trigger point in the back, for example, may reduce referral pain in the neck. The neck, now acting as a satellite trigger point, may then cause pain in the head. The pain may be sharp and intense or a dull ache.
Trigger point massage therapy is specifically designed to alleviate the source of the pain through cycles of isolated pressure and release. … The results and benefits of trigger point massage are releasing constricted areas in the muscles thus alleviating pain. You can experience a significant decrease in pain after just one treatment. Receiving massage with trigger point therapy on a regular basis can help naturally manage pain and stress from chronic injuries.
Deep tissue and trigger point massages are very similar. The difference is that deep tissue massage uses various traditional massage techniques to work the tissue, whereas trigger point massage is literally looking to manipulate or press on that one point that relieves tension in an entire area (perhaps not even nearby). For both, consider this contraption, which is an invaluable tool for
torturing soothing sore muscles all over your body. This is a great guide on doing trigger point therapy for yourself.
Best for: Chronic muscle pain and tension
Neuromuscular therapy is a subset of trigger point massage. A highly trained therapist applies pressure to the areas where you have muscle spasms — muscles that are painful to the touch. WebMD explains:
Neuromuscular therapy is a form of soft tissue manipulation that aims to treat underlying causes of chronic pain involving the muscular and nervous systems. This medically oriented form of massage addresses trigger points (tender muscles points), circulation, nerve compression, postural issues, and biomechanical problems that can be caused by repetitive movement injuries.
Neuromuscular therapy will feel painful at first, but it should relax the muscle and help it get more oxygen and blood flow.
Best for: Treating injuries and issues like poor circulation or posture problems, lower back pain.
Massages for Overall Health and Rejuvenation
While the massages above should all leave you feeling better, some specific types of massages may be better for an overall energy boost.
Shiatsu (literally, “finger pressure”) is an ancient technique from Japan. It combines gentle stretches with finger pressure to work on different pressure points. The idea is to fix imbalances in the flow of energy in your body. Although there’s no concrete evidence of Shiatsu’s use as a healing method, people who have had this massage still report stress and pain relief. About.com’s Alternative Medicine site says:
A scientific explanation is that shiatsu calms an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which improves circulation, relieves stiff muscles, and alleviates stress.
Unlike other types of massage, you stay clothed during the treatment.
Best for: Ailments such as headaches, back pain, and lack of energy
Thai massage works your entire body. It’s one of the most invigorating types of massages, as the therapist rigorously manipulates your body, moving it into yoga-like stretches. (It’s sometimes referred to as “Yoga for the lazy”.) The therapist uses every part of his or her body — hands, knees, legs and feet — to not only stretch you but also apply pressure on your muscles and loosen your joints. You might even get walked on! This type of massage is both energising and, at times, relaxing.
Best for: Improving energy, increased flexibility, overall health and well-being.
Finally, sports massage is designed specifically for the very physically active (whether you’re a professional athlete or not). It combines Swedish, Shiatsu and other techniques to concentrate on the areas that are related to your sport. Athletes often get sports massages to prepare for peak performance, prevent injury, and also treat injury. Sports Injury Clinic, which offers several demonstration videos, says:
The benefits and effects of sports massage include physical effects such as circulating blood and lymphatic fluids as well as stretching muscle tissue and breaking down scar tissue.
There are physiological effects such as reducing pain and relaxing muscles as well as psychological affects which include reducing anxiety levels.
Best for: Athletes
The massage types above are some of the most popular massages you can get, but there are many others. Regardless of the type of massage you opt for, be sure to tell your therapist which areas you especially need work on, whether you have any health issues, and, during the massage, how the pressure feels. When you find a therapist you like, you might want to book a standing appointment with him or her for pain and stress relief all year long.
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