There are many types of massage therapy, from classics like Swedish and deep tissue to more exotic styles like shiatsu. Whether you’d like to branch out a bit or have a health condition or injury, choosing a style of massage can be confusing if you’re not quite sure what it involves. Here is a list of the most popular types of massage (including some that may be new to you).
Swedish Massage Therapy
The standard type of massage offered in most clinics, gyms, spas, and wellness centers, Swedish massage is virtually synonymous with massage therapy. Swedish massage is based on the Western concepts of anatomy and physiology, compared to the energy-centric style more common in Asian forms of massage. Using lotion or oil, massage therapists typically begin with broad general strokes and then transition to specific strokes to address problem areas.
There are five basic strokes in Swedish massage therapy: effleurage (long smooth strokes), petrissage (kneading, rolling, and lifting), friction (wringing or small circular movements), tapotement (percussion), and vibration (rocking and shaking movements).
Swedish massage provides full-body muscle relaxation, and it can be especially helpful if you’re recovering from an injury.
An aromatherapy massage is a Swedish massage with scented plant oils (known as essential oils) added to the massage oil. Extracted from flowers and other plant parts, essential oils offer a pleasing scent and are believed to have healing properties. Lavender and rose, for instance, are known to promote relaxation. Although oils may be selected to address specific needs, the therapist typically uses pre-blended oils to relax, energize, or uplift.
The soothing effects of aromatherapy massage can benefit a variety of conditions, including headaches, insomnia, certain digestive disorders, back pain, and even premenstrual symptoms.
Before receiving an aromatherapy massage, make sure you’re not allergic to any of the plants used in the oils, since they may cause a reaction on the skin.
Hot Stone Massage
As the name implies, hot stone massage uses warm stones. The therapist places heated, smooth stones on specific points on the body and also holds the warm stones while giving the massage. The stones are usually basalt (a volcanic rock that retains heat well).
The warmth of the stones can be relaxing and can loosen tight muscles so that the therapist can reach areas of muscle tension quickly.
If you have certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or varicose veins, you should check with your health care provider if you plan on getting a hot stone massage. Likewise, if you take any blood-thinning medication, be sure to get a medical opinion first.
Deep Tissue Massage
Deep tissue massage is a focused, therapeutic massage that targets muscle knots (also known as “adhesions”) and specific problem areas in the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. Using deliberate, slow strokes or friction across the grain of the muscle, the therapist addresses chronic tight or painful muscles, repetitive strain, postural problems, or injuries.
While it’s true that the pressure of deep tissue is generally more intense than that of a Swedish massage, it shouldn’t have to be painful to be effective. If you’re experiencing pain, let your massage therapist know right away.
This type of massage is particularly beneficial for people with chronic pain or lingering injuries that cause limited mobility. It’s effective in treating repetitive stress injuries such as tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome and can be helpful in reducing the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
A form of Japanese bodywork, shiatsu involves localized pressure using the therapist’s fingers (or sometimes hands and elbows), applied in a rhythmic sequence along the body. Each point is held for about two to eight seconds.
With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, the goal of shiatsu is to stimulate acupressure points on the body to improve the flow of energy and help regain balance.
Since no oil or lotion is used, you wear loose clothing. Shiatsu is normally done on a mat on the floor or on a low massage table and is often used to reduce stress and protect against stress-related health issues. It’s also believed effective for treating conditions like arthritis, insomnia, back and neck pain, sciatica, and even sinus problems.
Shiatsu may help increase energy, promote recovery from injuries, and stimulate the digestive system.
A unique blend of assisted yoga, passive stretching, and pressing massage movements, Thai massage is more energizing than other forms of massage. It’s a little bit like yoga without doing the work, as the therapist moves and stretches you in a sequence of postures, usually on a mat on the floor.
Like shiatsu, Thai massage aligns the energies of the body. The massage therapist uses rhythmic compression along the body’s energy lines to reduce stress and improve flexibility and range of motion. It is done fully clothed.
This type of massage can reduce muscle spasticity and back pain, and has been shown to be useful in treating balance problems and migraine symptoms.
Also known as prenatal massage, pregnancy massage is customized to an expectant mother’s needs but is most often used to promote relaxation. Since many pregnant women suffer from lower back pain and swollen ankles especially in the later months, prenatal massage is a relatively safe, drug-free way to provide relief.
Massage therapists who have received specialized training and are certified in prenatal massage know how to position and support the woman’s body during the massage, modify techniques, and avoid certain areas and techniques during pregnancy. Most will have a special table that allows the woman to rest comfortably and safely during the massage. Ideally, you should seek out a practitioner who is experienced and licensed in prenatal massage.
Like having your feet worked on? The therapist uses finger pressure and techniques such as kneading and rubbing to promote relaxation and healing in the body. Reflexology is based on “reflex areas” on the hands and feet, whose energy is believed to be connected to organs and other body parts. By applying pressure to the reflex points, the reflexologist can balance your nervous system and stimulate endorphins, the body’s natural pleasure response, which reduces stress and discomfort.
Reflexology dates back to ancient civilizations but was refined by American physiotherapist Eunice Ingram in the 1930s. This can be a deeply relaxing therapy, especially if you stand all day or have tired, achy feet. You remove your shoes and socks but otherwise remain clothed.
Designed to prevent and treat injuries, improve flexibility, and enhance athletic performance, sports massage can be used by athletes of all abilities to prepare for or recover from athletic or sports events. Even if you aren’t an athlete, sports massage may help muscle pain or restricted range of motion.
The idea behind sports massage is to manipulate the body’s soft tissues, and focus on certain muscle groups depending on which sport the athlete plays. This type of massage can help with increased blood flow, increased range of motion, and increased flexibility.
In sports massage, the strokes are generally faster than a typical Swedish massage. The therapist may also include compression, pressure point therapy, friction, and joint mobilization.
A Word From Verywell
When you are looking for massage therapy, be sure to check which type of massage a practitioner can provide. Match that with the benefits you hope to get from the massage session. You may want to chat with several different practitioners to find the one who understands your needs and is used to working with people with similar goals. Be sure also to discuss any allergies, such as to scents or plant oils, so your massage will be relaxing and beneficial without that concern.