Massage has been around since before recorded history. But here's something that hasn't. "The link between massage and modern medicine is a brand new baby science," says Ruth Werner, author of A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology and a massage therapist. "We're not yet to the point of definitely saying what kind of treatment helps what kind of ailments. But studies suggest that massage may help depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia. Why it works is still a big mystery." Here's a guide to the most common types of massage and how they can help.
Swedish massage uses long, smooth strokes, pushing the flow of blood toward the heart. The therapist will often use a light chopping with the side of the hand to relax a specific area of tension, says Brenda L. Griffith, a certified massage therapist in Richmond, Virginia, and a spokeswoman for the American Massage Therapy Association.
Benefits: Relaxation, stress reduction, improved circulation, and possible aid in treating hypertension. Swedish massage may also help dissolve scar tissue and reduce swelling from some injuries.
A Japanese form of massage, Shiatsu incorporates pressure points, instead of the long, flowing style of Swedish massage. Often done on the floor on a mat instead of massage table, the Shiatsu massage therapist uses leverage and gravity to apply pressure to specific points around the body using acupressure to relieve tight muscles.
Benefits: Helps with overuse injuries. Can possibly strengthen the body's immune system.
Practitioners of the therapy rest their hands lightly on various parts of the head, on the front and back of the torso, and on the limbs, according to Pamela Miles, author of REIKI: A Comprehensive Guide and a Reiki master based in New York City. Clients receive Reiki treatments fully clothed on a treatment table or sometimes seated comfortably in a chair. Sessions typically last between 45 and 90 minutes. There is usually no talking during the treatment, allowing for even deeper relaxation, according to Miles, who has helped establish Reiki programs in hospitals that help patients manage pain and anxiety.
Benefits: May help with pain and anxiety, along with relief of tension. Also can help clear your mind and make you feel more invigorated.
With the application of more pressure than other treatments, deep-tissue massage allows therapists to work tissue in the sub-layers of muscles. To apply enough pressure, therapists may use an elbow or leverage their body weight while leaning over a client, Griffith says. The goal of a deep tissue massage is to elongate the muscle fibers and loosen hard-to-budge tension. It may be used in conjunction with other types to relax a specific muscle or muscle group.
Benefits: May help in recovery from soft-tissue injuries, increase range of motion, and reduce the pain of arthritis and tendonitis.
Designed to help athletes perform better and recover faster, sports massage can help the average weekend warrior as well, says Griffith. Often this type of massage is concentrated on a specific troublesome area, such as a sore shoulder or leg and typically lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. It combines techniques from Swedish and deep-tissue massage.
Benefits: Can help reduce soreness after participating in an athletic event and may speed recovery time. Some clients use this type of massage to help recover from injuries.
Borrowing some techniques from Swedish massage, this type of massage should only be performed by a therapist trained in pregnancy massage. Consult your doctor before any such treatment. The focus of this type of massage is on the parts that suffer most during pregnancy: neck, shoulders, lower back.
Benefits: Can reduce aches and pains as the body changes during pregnancy. During labor it may ease pain, and it can speed healing after delivery.
Massages can cost big bucks for a 60-minute session. But you can save money by booking your massage at certified massage schools that usually charge less than half of what you'd pay at a spa. Don't worry about being a guinea pig. Students are trained and supervised before working on the public. To find schools near you, click on the "Schools" tab at AmtaMassage.org.