(This multi-part article is reposted from my work at Everything2. There’s more to know and that will be coming in the next weeks!)
Narrowing it Down is Half the Battle
Before searching for a massage therapist, it is a good idea to have an understanding of what massage is and what it can (and can not) do. Massage excels at easing aches and pains in soft tissue (skin, muscle, and the connective tissue which surrounds them). A massage enhances circulation, loosens tight spots in muscles, and increases a person’s overall sense of well-being. Massage may also circulate lymph, eliminate waste products from tissues and increase the activity of the immune system.
There are a number of maladies for which massage is not particularly effective. Systemic ailments, infectious diseases, and autoimmune disorders are examples of problems for which massage is not an effective treatment. While it may palliate certain symptoms of these ailments, general rule of thumb might be: massage is appropriate for aches and pains of the muscles and connective tissue (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, bones and joints).
Long cursed to exist in the shadowy outlands of society, massage has endured a sleazy reputation often mixed up with prostitution. As it has become more acceptable as a health care modality, some people have lumped massage in with faddish ‘New Age’ or ‘Alternative’ holistic health care practices. While some of these practices may be worthwhile, effective treatments, there are unquestionably some which are dubious—even potentially hazardous. The buyer should definitely beware!
A Matter of Style
For the inexperienced massage client, the variety of massage styles can be absolutely bewildering—there seem to be hundreds, with new ones being added all the time. It is, however, possible to group massage techniques into a few general categories:
Relaxing massage techniques: Most massage clients want to relax and/or to soothe minor muscular aches. For these purposes, Swedish massage, with the occasional judicious application of deeper pressure and stretching, is the ideal therapy. This type of work uses kneading (petrissage) and stroking (effleurage) with moderate pressure; the therapist can work deeper on the areas where persistent stress or trigger points exist. Most practitioners in the US and Canada are trained in this style of massage therapy.
Swedish massage has been shown to be effective in relaxation and pain relief and, as such, is good for a wide array of physical complaints including insomnia, depression, ADHD, pain and soreness associated with injury rehabilitation, arthritis and the aches and pains of day-to-day living.
Swedish massage is also indicated in mood elevation and can be extremely useful in conjunction with treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction and age-related deficits.
Deep pressure therapies: Deep tissue massage goes hand-in-hand with sports therapy and is often used in aiding the body’s natural healing processes in the restoration of movement and relief of pain. Such therapists often work in conjunction with (or at least in communication with) the client’s chiropractor or physician. Many of these practitioners also use trigger point therapy to work out dense, immobile spots in muscle tissue that frequently result from overuse. Deep work usually relies on very heavy pressure as well as stretching and the application of heat or cold during the work. As a result, it is not as relaxing as regular Swedish massage and may be a bit uncomfortable while being performed.
Friction massage: This is a therapeutic massage technique which is often used to help restore movement to muscles and joints. It has been shown to be effective in pain relief and helping to reduce the effects of scarring as well. Typical Swedish massage frequently employs friction and most massage therapists are familiar with friction techniques.
Medical massage techniques: These techniques treat specific medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Massage for pregnant women or infants, or techniques for the relief of lymphedema are two further examples. Such therapeutic techniques are very exacting and many of them require specialized training. A therapist may advertise knowledge of such techniques or will be able to tell a client about them on the phone or upon initial consultation.*
Energy work: These therapies (including
qi gong, tuina, reiki, polarity therapy and many others), while grouped under the heading of massage, are frequently not involved in the actual manipulation of soft tissue. Energy practitioners believe that they can make use of touch and breathing to focus energetic currents inside the human system and thus bring about therapeutic effects. While some of these techniques are well-regarded (even by some medical practitioners), they remain controversial. The many different types of energy work and their purported effects and uses are outside the scope of this article. Suffice to say, if you are looking for a massage, going to an energy worker may well be a disappointing experience for you.
Nonstandard massage techniques: There are literally hundreds of techniques that do not fall into any of the above categories. Rolfing/Structural Integration (which uses gravity and postures, and may be more closely related to chiropractic work), acupressure and reflexology (which incorporate pushing on tiny spots which may be able to have profound effects on the entire body), sports massage (which incorporates stretching, heat and deep tissue techniques), Thai Yoga Massage (which uses very athletic stretching in combination with massage), Trager (which uses rocking, stretching and jostling extensively) are just a few examples of the many and varied types of therapies that are available. Interested massage clients should ask the therapist what techniques she or he has studied and get a good, thorough explanation of each technique. Note that therapists who are well-trained in some of these unusual modalities command a premium price!
*If you have a condition which you think massage may be able to help, speak with a physician to see if there may be techniques that can help you. There are, however, a few doctors who lump massage in with quack cures. These professionals, likely put off by the ridiculous claims that a small number of therapists have advanced, dismiss all massage out of hand as useless (or worse). If massage interests you, you may have to be persistent and get a second (or third) opinion.