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26th February, 20214 min read

What is massage therapy and how does it work?

Medical reviewer: Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author: Jennifer Co
Last reviewed: 23/02/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

If you’ve ever been for a massage, you’ll know how massage therapy feels (and how it makes you feel), but does it really work?

Research suggests it might – some studies report that massage therapy can help reduce stress, pain and tension. It’s popular in many cultures and is one of the oldest forms of pain relief – in China, for example, massage therapy has been around for more than 3,000 years.

Massage therapy is the practice of manipulating and applying varying degrees of pressure to the muscles and soft tissues of the body. The amount of pressure applied by the massage therapist depends on your preference and your body’s needs.

If you’re keen to give massage therapy a try but have any health conditions, concerns or injuries, speak to your doctor before going for a massage.

How does massage therapy work?

Different types of massage therapy have different benefits, but in general, massage therapy can bring about what’s called ‘the relaxation response’. When this happens, your heart rate and breathing slows down, blood pressure lowers, stress hormone production decreases and muscles relax. By helping muscles relax, massage therapy can reduce spasms and relieve pressure caused by pinched nerves.

Which type of massage should I get?

Knowing some of the different types of massage therapy and their potential benefits will help you decide which might be right for you.

Swedish massage

A flowing, kneading type of massage that aims to help ease muscle knots and improve blood and lymph circulation.

Shiatsu

Meaning ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese, shiatsu is a Japanese style of massage where the massage therapist uses their fingers to apply pressure to the body. This is based on acupuncture and is called acupressure. Shiatsu may be beneficial for headaches and muscle pain, stiffness and tension.

Hot stone massage

Instead of a massage therapist using their hands to massage the body, a variety of smooth, heated stones are placed on the body to help relieve tension and stress. The hot stones should not cause any pain.

Aromatherapy massage

This fragrant type of massage therapy uses essential oils that are diluted and massaged into the skin. Aromatherapy massage may improve your mood and help reduce pain, anxiety, depression and muscle tension.

Prenatal massage

Also called ‘pregnancy massage’, prenatal massage may help with pregnancy-related body aches and muscle tension. You’ll usually lie on your side while being massaged, or on a specially designed massage table. Some therapists won’t perform prenatal massage during the first trimester of pregnancy – to be safe, check with your doctor before you go for a prenatal massage.

Thai massage

You’ll be an active participant in a Thai massage session, as the therapist is likely to move and stretch you into different positions that can feel similar to yoga stretches. It might not feel too relaxing, but Thai massage is believed to help with circulation, flexibility, pain, stress and may boost energy.

Deep tissue massage

This might feel like a ‘harder’ massage than some other types of massage therapy. Slow, deep pressure is applied to the body to help relieve tension in muscles and tissue.

Reflexology

This could be a good option for you if you don’t like your whole body being massaged. Reflexology works by applying pressure to pressure points in the ears, hands and feet, to help release tension or pain.

Sports massage

Popular with athletes, sports massage manipulates the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the body and can enhance athletic performance, training and recovery.

How to find a massage therapist

You might be most comfortable getting a referral for a massage therapist from a friend or your doctor. You can also find qualified, registered massage therapists via:

  • the American Massage Therapy Association (in the US)
  • the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council(in the UK)

Key points

  • massage therapy may help to reduce stress, pain, anxiety and tension
  • massage therapy involves manipulating and applying pressure to the body’s soft tissues
  • massage therapy has been used for thousands of years
  • different types of massage therapy may have different benefits
  • it’s important to find a qualified, certified massage therapist – speak to your doctor if you have any concerns
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We include references at the end of every article, so you know where we get our facts. We only ever take evidence from medically-recognised sources, approved by the UK National Health Service's The Information Standard, or certified by Health On the Net (HON). When we talk about popular health trends or claims, we'll always tell you if there's very little or no evidence to back them up. Our medical team also checks our sources, making sure they're appropriate and that we've interpreted the science correctly.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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