Massage Therapy

Your guide to massage therapy

What is massage therapy?

Simply put, massage is the practice of manipulating the soft tissues of the body, usually by placing your hands on yourself or another person and moving them around. Although there are numerous different ways of doing this fairly basic function, the idea is always remarkably similar – to offer someone some release from the tension they may be suffering from in their body, whether it is their muscles, joints, nerves or mental health. Generally considered to be relaxing when it is done for therapeutic reasons, massage can also be quite painful. Certain sports massage therapists, for example, may stretch and manipulate overworked muscles of professional sportspeople so that they can continue to perform at a high level. That said, most massage therapy is relaxing, gentle and designed to simply make people feel better. Most professionals who conduct massage therapies are licensed to do so but many people do it informally with one another, especially with their partner.

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 What does massage therapy mean?

Massage is derived from a French word that literally translates as the friction that is caused by kneading. Although few masseurs would treat someone in front of them like a ball of dough, the etymology of the term relays exactly what is going on when someone is massaged. Some modern lexicographers agree that the French word for massage itself comes from an Arabic term, massa. This is used today to mean to touch or to feel something. In this sense, massage therapies are very much connected with manual manipulation. That said, modern-day massage therapy will often use a raft of different devices to create numerous massaging effects which may not necessarily involve the use of the hands at all. Some, like massage rollers, for instance, are held in hand but can be applied to oneself without the need for a separate masseur. As such, the extent to which the term massage is used nowadays is very wide indeed.

When did massage therapy originate?

Given that humans have always tended to live in social groups close to one another, it is likely that some form of massage or grooming has been taking place ever since man first evolved from other primates. That said, there is no proof for this. In fact, the earliest example of what we might call massage therapy today was discovered at the so-called Tomb of Akmanthor, located in an Egyptian village near Giza, where there is an image of two men having their feet and hands attended to. This image is often thought to depict a massage, but some scholars disagree. The first time the word massage is to be found written down dates back to about 2,000 BCE in some ancient Sumerian and Akkadian texts. Massage is also found in ancient Chinese texts, although these are much later, from about 720 BCE at the earliest. Around the same time, ancient Greeks were developing their own forms of massage. Put simply, it seems to be a global phenomenon that people have always enjoyed regardless of culture.

How does massage therapy work?

Massage therapy works by stimulating natural responses within the soft tissues of the body by manipulating them through the skin. Firstly, there is a natural relaxation response we all get when we are massaged, especially when the therapy is conducted gently. It is for this reason that massage is often accompanied by other relaxing elements, such as trickling water or soft music. By relaxing our muscles, so tension in them is released. In addition, the body will go through what is called a mechanical response. This could be by stimulating blood supply to certain muscle groups, for example. There again, the lymphatic system may begin working with a more pronounced effect in parts of the body that have been massaged. This means that connective tissues - such as tendons and ligaments, for example – can also be treated leading to improved recovery from sports and physical activity or exertion, for instance. A relaxing massage can also help to get better sleep and to de-stress.

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Who benefits from massage therapy?

The short answer is everyone can. Although extra care needs to be taken with children who are still growing and therefore need massages that are consistent with their age group, adults and youngsters alike will be able to benefit from a therapeutic massage. Other groups for whom additional care needs to be taken includes frail and elderly people, especially those with diminished muscle tone and skin depth. Applying your hands as a massage therapist too firmly to such people may result in more harm than good. People with skin conditions, especially where these are transmissible, should be massaged only after suitable precautions have been made. The same goes for people who have mental conditions which make them especially sensitive or fearful of touch. In such cases, slowly building up over a series of massage treatments may be the best approach to take. There is also a special kind of pregnancy massage designed to be suitable for women who are pregnant.

Why do massage therapy as a career?

Massage therapy is a career path that many people follow. Gaining a qualification in the practice will mean that you become employable in spas and other treatment centres, especially if you are qualified in more than one type of massage, for example, Swedish massage and Thai massage. Many people who have learned the basics of massage, including the anatomy of the body – which is an important part of any massage studies these days – go on to enjoy long-lasting careers as massage therapists as soon as they qualify. Some may choose to specialise in sports massage which, in turn, can lead to careers in physiotherapy while others discover a more spiritual dimension to the practice and their careers diverge into alternative therapies. Overall, working as a masseur can be a rewarding, if physically draining, career path to follow.

Can massage therapy help a pinched nerve?

Pinched or trapped nerves tend to send pain signals to the brain. Manipulating the part of the body where the nerve is agitated can mean it becomes released, which leads to almost instant relief in many cases. However, if the location where the pinched nerve is already inflamed, then massage can also make the situation worse. Even worse, sometimes transferred pain from one part of the body may make you feel pain in a location other than where the trapped nerve is situated. In other words, it is quite easy to go wrong when treating a trapped nerve with a massage. It is a good idea to consult a doctor to see if he or she thinks there is any reason not to proceed. If there isn't, then a light Swedish massage of the affected area is probably best. If the pain diminishes, then proceed with further treatments but stop if it means the pain spikes.

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Can massage therapy help erectile dysfunction?

In some cases, being worried about maintaining an erection is all that it can take to suffer from erectile dysfunction. In such cases, being more relaxed before indulging in sexual activity can certainly help to put you in the right mood and to maintain it for longer. In other words, a relaxing massage will often help with erectile dysfunction that comes from stress or worry. That said, there are different reasons for erectile dysfunction and it is important to seek professional medical advice if you suffer from a continuing problem in which massage therapy has not led to success. If your doctor recommends it, then you can try something called prostatic massage. This involves applying pressure to the prostate gland via the rectum, so it is not for everyone. However, this form of massage has been successful for many men who have suffered from certain types of erectile dysfunction.

What types of massage therapy are there?

We have already covered some of the common types of massage therapies that are practised today, including sports massage, Swedish massage and Thai massage. Whereas Swedish massage – and its adapted form of sports massage – concentrate on physiology, especially muscles and joints, Thai massage has an element of spirituality. Essentially, this comes down to focussing on energy lines in the body, known as sen, and to clear blockages in them. Other forms of massage therapy which have similar philosophies include shiatsu, a Japanese approach to massage, and acupressure which is often said to be good for a range of ailments, from nausea to tension headaches. Traditional Burmese massage, known as Yoe Yar Nhake Nal Chin, incorporates both acupressure techniques and methods drawn from Thai massage. Turkish massage, which often involves cracking joints, is common in the Eastern Mediterranean and often on offer in Turkish baths, known as a hammam.

What sorts of equipment are used in massage therapy?

By far, the most common way of conducting massage today is manually, although, in certain styles of massage, feet are also used. Other than manually touching the person being treated, the masseur will often use nothing more than oils on the skin. These have two functions. The first is to lessen friction between the hands of the masseur and the skin of the person being massaged. The second is to release scents which often aid in the relaxation process and provide a therapeutic benefit in their own right. Hot stone massages involve the placing of stones on people's backs. In some cases, rollers and stippled gloves are used, but these tend to be for the self-massage market rather than for professional usage. Most professional massage therapists will use a massage table which has a hole in it for the face of the person they are treating to poke through. This means that the neck is not twisted to one side during treatment.

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How is massage therapy regulated?

Although there are no regulations governing the private treatment of massage among consenting adults, if the service is offered professionally – that is, for money – then the practitioner must be qualified to provide massage therapy. Commercial massage is regulated through a professional body in the UK, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council. One of two qualifications, an ITEC or a VTCT, is needed to practise. In the US, the American Massage Therapy Association is the main body that therapists need to sign up to but there are some further regulations in particular states that also need to be adhered to. In France, three years of study are mandatory with two final exams that must be passed before a masseur may operate legally. In New Zealand, massage therapy is not officially regulated at all despite the fact that most practitioners have gained proper qualifications to do the job.

Is reflexology a type of massage therapy?

Yes and no. Reflexology involves manipulating the body through touch. However, this alternative therapy does not mean that the reflexologist will work on the area of the body being treated, as would occur with a conventional massage. Instead, reflexology, also known as zone therapy, applies pressure to the body in another location creating a reflex effect in another zone. Typically, reflexologists work on the feet of a patient – although manipulating the hand is also quite common – such that the corresponding part of the body with that part of the limb is massaged. For example, a trained reflexologist would know exactly where to manipulate your foot if he or she wanted to help with stomach pains, headaches or even eyesight. It can also be used to help muscle recovery, just like conventional massage therapies. In this regard, reflexology bridges traditional massage and alternative therapies.

What is ayurvedic massage therapy?

Ayurvedic massage is part of a wider system of holistic medicine that has been around for centuries. Ayurvedic medicine focuses on using spices, herbalism and lifestyle changes to boost physical health and to bring the body, mind and spirit into equilibrium. As such, an ayurvedic massage will tend to be part of a more holistic approach to the person being treated, not merely focussing on their physiology. Other types of massage, such as Burmese massage, also share this idea. What is distinct about ayurvedic massage is that the oils that are used are seen as just as important to the process as the manual manipulation of the body itself, perhaps even more so depending on the practitioner. Essential oils are chosen for the massage that will help the individual by manipulating energies, known as doshas. These doshas are Kapha, Pitta and Vata, which very roughly translate as air, fire and water.

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Massage therapy in summary

To summarise, massage therapy means many different things to different people, especially in various parts of the world which have their own traditions. In the West, massage is predominantly thought of as a physical activity whereby the body is worked on to produce a favourable outcome. Although this is the case in much of the rest of the world, as well, it tends to also have a spiritual dimension, especially in East and South Asia where ideas about energy healing, universal life force and essential elements are at the forefront of massage therapy. Consequently, there has been a long exchange of ideas and cultures between East and West over the course of the last few decades with traditions like Swedish massage informing Asian masseurs and vice versa.

Although scientific studies have been conducted into some of the more alternative massage therapies around - such as reflexology, for example – comparing how effective they are with western methods rather misses the point about them. What masseurs are doing is something that would be unobservable so it is only the reported outcome that counts. Of course, this leads some people to claim such practices are a pseudoscience with nothing more than a placebo effect. However, the effects of many alternative therapies fall into this category and it has not stopped their popularity from rising in the West for many years with more and more people learning the principles involved. Overall, massage therapy offers a great deal of positivity to people all over the world and, given it has been around for a very long time already, it shows no signs of going away.

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