Which Type of Massage is Best For You?

December 03, 2019

12.04 - AM

Depending on how they’re separated out, there are over 80 different types of massage, some more popular than others. Many are likely available at a spa or therapy facility near you. There are also many independent massage therapists operating around the country, many of whom specialize in one or more methods. 

But, if you’re new to massages, or if you’ve recently started experiencing symptoms, a massage may be able to treat, how do you choose what type of therapy you need? The following is a simple breakdown of the most popular types of massage to help you come to a decision. 

The purpose of all massage

To begin with, it’s important to recognize why you may be considering a massage in the first place. All types of massage are essentially trying to accomplish some or all of these three goals: 

  • Relaxation
  • Pain relief
  • Stress relief

They go about accomplishing these goals in different ways, and some are more likely than others to work on specific types of pain or stress. But, in the end, these are the three outcomes you should expect. 

Does massage treat specific ailments?

While stress relief, in general, is widely accepted as good for everyone’s overall health, massage is recognized by doctors as effective in treating a few specific conditions. According to WebMD, “massage has been shown to have a range of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to easing migraines. Research has demonstrated that massage may help relieve pain for patients with cancer, HIV, and Parkinson's disease.”

It’s important to note that the pain relief and positive feelings people get from a massage is not from any positive effect on the physiological or psychological source of these ailments. Rather, a massage relaxes tense muscles — a common cause of chronic and acute pain, and often a result of long-term stress or injury — improves circulation through and around muscle fibers, and seems to increase serotonin levels (although that still needs to be effectively studied.) So, it definitely feels good and offers functional pain relief in a lot of settings, but it’s not a substitute for proper medical treatment of underlying conditions. 

Four basic categories of massage

All the most popular types of massage can be lumped into four general categories:

  • Swedish massage
  • Deep tissue massage
  • Thai massage
  • Reflexology

Swedish massage

Swedish massage is probably what first comes to mind when you picture someone getting a massage, and it’s the most popular method, overall. It’s characterized by relatively gentle pressure and long, gliding strokes. The primary focus is relaxation, although mild pain relief is often an accompanying benefit of that relaxation.

The basic techniques used for a traditional Swedish massage can be adapted to many different needs. So, there are a number of variations on the basic Swedish massage theme: 

  • Hot stone massage - hot stones are placed at various points on the body to enhance relaxation, loosen tense muscles, and encourage circulation. The massage therapist works around and beneath the stones as needed. 
  • Aromatherapy massage - essential oils are applied to the skin and in the air through diffusers. This adds a mental/emotional dimension to the massage to enhance relaxation and restoration.
  • Shiatsu massage - the traditional Swedish massage motions are altered to apply pulsating pressure, often focused on specific areas of concern such as the neck, shoulders, or lower back. (At times, Shiatsu massage may incorporate more pressure than normal Swedish massage, so it can cross over into deep tissue massage.)
  • Prenatal massage - Swedish massage motions are adapted so that they are safe and effective for pregnant women. This sometimes includes the use of a specialized bed with a cutout for the pregnant woman’s belly so she can comfortably lay face-down. 
  • Chair massage - a shorter massage that focuses on the head, neck, shoulders, and back, this is considered a great “starter” massage for those new to the practice, or for those short on time.

Deep tissue massage

Where Swedish massage is gentle and relaxing, deep tissue massage is forceful and energizing. The massage therapist expends a lot of energy working your muscles with hands, fingers, and even elbows. While it shouldn’t be painful, deep tissue massages can be intense. Clients report feeling “a good kind of sore” for up to a day afterward, similar to what you may expect to experience after a strenuous workout. The primary focus of deep tissue massage is pain relief, especially of chronic muscle pain or severe acute pain due to injury or surgery. 

Like Swedish massage, the basic techniques involved in deep tissue massage are often adapted to specific circumstances. Two of the most common variations are:

  • Sports massage - this is often used for professional athletes during or between games. Deep tissue massage techniques are focused on the area surrounding an injury or where they are experiencing acute soreness in order to relax the surrounding muscles and fascia, aiding recovery and enhancing performance. 
  • Trigger point massage - the same principle can be applied to chronic pain or treatment of acute muscle pain over the long term. Specific “trigger points” are identified and treated with deep tissue massage in order to relieve pain there or elsewhere in the body where the pain is “referred” due to the way muscle fibers and nerves interconnect.

Thai massage

Thai massage is a more active practice that combines aspects of traditional Swedish massage with assisted yoga movements to warm, stretch, and actively work affected muscles in order to relieve pain and relax tension. 

Clients who experience Thai massage describe it as energizing and invigorating. However, it’s important to understand a proper Thai massage involves a lot of movement, some of which may be uncomfortable for those who have never experienced it. Those who are recovering from injuries or deal with limited movement for other reasons should discuss the session in detail with the massage therapist before beginning to make sure no inadvertent damage is done.


Reflexology is a highly specialized form of massage that focuses specifically on the feet, hands, and ears. It’s based on the concept of “zone therapy” which goes back to ancient Egypt and China, but which was further refined and developed by American physiotherapist, Eunice Ingram, in the 1930’s. 

Essentially, it purports that there are areas of the foot — and, to a lesser degree, the hands and ears — that have direct nervous connections to various regions of the body and even specific organs. And, by applying pressure to those “zones,” pain relief and other benefits can be felt in the connected regions. 

Some people still view reflexology like it’s pseudoscience, but there’s actually a surprising amount of clinical evidence backing it up. Of course, even if there’s nothing to “zone therapy” at all, there’s no denying the relaxing effects of a good foot massage. 

So, now that you’ve had a tour of the different types of massage available, you’re in a better position to decide which, if any, are right for you. If you’d like to receive up to 25 percent off the cost of your session, consider joining the Wellness Complete discount program today.

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