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Which Type of Massage Should You Choose? A Beginner’s Guide

Which Type Of Massage Should You Choose? A Beginner’s Guide

“Which massage should I choose?” This is a great question with a somewhat complicated answer. With so many different types of massage therapy and bodywork available, it can be confusing to understand the differences and decide which type of massage to choose for yourself. In order to help you understand the many different options, let’s break them all down by defining the many types of massage therapy and bodywork available and then explaining which one might be best for your personal wellness goals. Whether it is your first massage session or your hundredth, understanding your options is crucial to optimizing your health. You just might discover your new favorite massage!

What is the Difference between Massage and Bodywork?

First, let’s cover the difference between massage therapy and bodywork. One definition for massage therapy is “the rubbing and kneading of muscles and joints of the body with the hands, especially to relieve tension or pain.” Other definitions incorporate elements of enhancing the health and well-being of the client with benefits such as increased circulation of blood and lymph even if the client is not experiencing tension or pain.

Bodywork, on the other hand, is defined as “therapies and techniques in complementary medicine that involve touching or manipulating the body”. Massage therapy is included under that definition, but it also includes other types of bodywork such as reflexology and craniosacral therapy. These therapies and others are hands-on but are not technically massage. Many massage therapists will train in these areas and offer them as a stand-alone therapy or incorporate them into their massages.

Therefore, massage therapists are also body workers, but not all body workers are massage therapists. A certified reflexologist, for instance, may not ever go to massage school or get a massage therapy license. They may offer reflexology only, which can address complaints throughout the entire body without using massage techniques.

Explore Suzanne Schaper Massage Modalities

With Swedish massage as a foundation for her sessions, Suzanne Schaper offers a wide range of modalities and techniques.

What Types of Massage Therapy are Available?

Different types of massage therapy are also referred to as modalities. Many varying modalities exist, so it is impossible to mention them all. I will cover the most common types available here in the United States, although some of them are more regional and may not be available everywhere. Keep in mind that every massage therapist has a personal approach and touch— the same modality will be a different experience between two practitioners.

These explanations will give you an idea of the basics involved with each modality and whether or not they’re right for you.

What is Swedish Massage?

Swedish Massage is the father of modern day massage therapy. Credited to Johan Georg Mezger, this modality includes stretching and classic massage techniques such as petrissage, effleurage, friction, vibration, and tapotement.

In the United States, most massage therapy students are trained in Swedish Massage first and then introduced to other modalities after they have learned a basic routine. Interestingly enough, this type of massage is referred to as Classic Massage in Europe, but is well known as Swedish Massage here in the U.S.

This type of massage is sought after for relaxation, to relieve muscle tension, and to improve circulation and range of motion. Sometimes dismissed as boring or not effective enough, Swedish Massage is a great experience that can provide a full body massage for overall relief and relaxation.

Best for: Relaxation and Overall Tension Relief, Wellness, Athletic Performance, Injury Recovery

What is Esalen Massage?

Eslaen Massage combines more familiar elements of traditional Swedish Massage techniques such as stretching and long, gentle strokes with a focus on the psychological well-being of the client. Energy exchange, which refers to the massage therapist working in-sync with your breaths and purposefully pausing at certain intervals, is another important component of Esalen Massage.

At its core, Esalen Massage emphasizes the nurturing power of touch and how fundamental it is to human health on emotional, spiritual and physical levels. While you will experience tension relief in your body with this modality, you’ll also come away feeling more “whole”; that is, more at peace with your body and surroundings.

Best for: Stress-Relief, Wellness

What is Deep Tissue Massage?

Deep Tissue Massage is one of the most commonly misunderstood forms of massage therapy. Many massage therapists will say they offer Deep Tissue Massage and end up using Swedish Massage, with its long strokes and stretching, with firmer than average pressure. In reality, Deep Tissue Massage is a sometimes aggressive modality that features deep, deep penetration of the muscle tissues and fascia to relieve pain. Most notably, therapists can spend a prolonged amount of time on a single area in order to effectively release tension.

Common techniques your massage therapist might use include trigger point therapy, myofascial release, and active release. Be forewarned: this modality is not for the faint of heart. It is purposefully intense and may not be for everyone.

Best for: Chronic Pain Relief, Injury Recovery, Athletic Performance

What is Hot Stone Massage?

Hot Stone Massage is one of the oldest forms of massage known to mankind. The massage therapist will lay heated basalt stones along your spine while proceeding to gently knead the body (starting at the feet) using hands as well as an additional stone. The combination of the warmth from the stones and the pressure on the muscles from the massage provide all-over relaxation that simply can’t be beat.

Best for: Relaxation, Stress-Relief

What is Hot Bamboo Massage?

If you love the soothing nature of Swedish Massage as well as the tension-relieving pressure of Deep Tissue, then Hot Bamboo Massage might be for you. A relatively new modality, Hot Bamboo Massage uses heated pieces of bamboo wood which have been specially designed to retain heal and repel bacteria to firmly knead the entire body in long, fluid motions. A therapist will also oftentimes use a smaller piece of bamboo to perform trigger point therapy on concentrated areas of the body that are sore or tense. This modality is truly the best of both worlds that provides you with an overall relaxing and pain-relieving sense of peace.

Best for: Relaxation, Stress-Relief, Pain Relief

What is Cupping Massage?

Cupping Massage is an ancient Chinese therapy that involves placing glass cups on the muscles to create a suction that boosts the blood flow to the area. Though the practice looks painful—the suction from the cups leaves behind what looks like bruising— it’s anything but. If anything, the sensation might be odd, and uncomfortable at best. Once the cup is removed, however, the tension it caused abates immediately. Some liken it to a Deep Tissue Massage…but in reverse. The cups essentially work to stretch out the muscle tissues and remove “knots” that you might be experiencing in certain muscle groups.

Cupping is very popular among athletes, particularly among Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps, who swears by cupping to help him recover from athletic performances. Some people even use it as a form of facial massage! Either way, Cupping Massage is one of the most unusual yet effective ways to rid your body of pain and to help you bounce back after an injury or intense workout session.

Best for: Athletic Performance, Injury Recovery, Pain Relief

What is Ashiatsu Massage?

While massage therapy can sometimes incorporates tools other than the hands to treat the body (see: Hot Stone Massage, Hot Bamboo Massage, and Cupping), Ashiatsu is unique because the primary tool the massage therapist uses is her feet. Ashiatsu has its roots in ancient Buddhism. Buddhist monks would walk over the patient’s back to restore the body’s “chi”, that is, its natural energy. While many may appreciate this aspect of Ashiatsu, it is still an effective form of muscle tension relief that utilizes the full weight of the massage therapist bearing down on the back muscles. It is all quite gentle, though, using similar Swedish-style techniques.

Best for: Wellness, Relaxation, Overall Tension Relief

What is Thai Massage?

Thai Massage is done fully clothed without massage oils or lotions. Most notably, there is no rubbing of the muscles. Rather, the therapist will use direct pressure (acupressure) on certain points of the body and assist the client as he or she sits in various yoga-like positions. It even incorporates elements like knuckle cracking, pulling on the toes and ears, and standing on the client’s back. It is deeply relaxing as well as a great source of pain relief and improved circulation.

Best for: Relaxation, Injury Recovery, Pain Relief

What is Sports Massage?

Sports Massage was designed specifically to help athletes perform better and recover faster. Its technique focuses on improving performance and flexibility as well as range of motion and recovery time. That being said, it incorporates many different techniques depending on the context of giving the massage. Effleurage and acupressure can both be used to great effect, depending on the need.

Best for: Injury Recovery, Pain Relief, Enhanced Athletic Performance

What is Myofascial Release Massage?

Myofascial Release is a technique that identifies sources of pain and tension in the fascia and then gently holds and releases the spot until the pain eventually subsides. Myofascial Release Massage is considered a form of bodywork that I liken to a bridging of the gap between massage and physical therapy. Its primary end is to help someone find relief from persistent and lasting chronic pain.

Best for: Pain Relief, Injury Recovery

What is Trigger Point Therapy?

Trigger points are what we refer to as “knots”, contracted muscles that refuse to relax. Usually, the key identifier of a trigger point is that not only is there pain when you press on one, but it causes pain elsewhere in the body as a result. For example, the trigger point in your shoulder could be running up along your neck and into your head to cause a headache. These trigger points can be caused by many things: poor posture, repeated injuries caused by overuse, muscle clenching due to intense stress, and even direct injury. Trigger Point Therapy is similar to Myofascial Release in that it will identify these trigger points and then use a technique of applying pressure to them until they gradually release.

If you struggle with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, tension headaches, back or hip pain, and even arthritis, then Trigger Point Therapy might be able to bring you the relief you seek.

Best for: Pain Relief, Injury Recovery, Tension Relief

Other Types of Massage

I wasn’t kidding where I said there are almost too many modalities to count! Additionally, massage therapists will off types of massage therapy that include one of more of the above mentioned modalities to serve certain groups of people and their unique needs. This includes:

Prenatal Massage— Pregnancy can cause a woman’s body to change dramatically. Intended for expectant mothers, Prenatal Massage can be customized to meet the needs of their changing bodies, prenatal massage can work wonders on the discomforts caused by pregnancy.

Geriatric Massage— Geriatric Massage is intended to help elderly people by improving circulation and range of motion as well as alleviating symptoms of arthritis, joint pain, and even depression. Many elderly people especially love the gentle, compassionate touch of a massage, as well.

Pediatric Massage— Touch is necessary for proper human development. Obviously, we can snuggle with our kiddos to show them how much they are loved, but Pediatric Massage is a great complement to this. Gentle and comforting, Prenatal Massage can help boost a child’s immune system and provide comfort during sickness.

Infant Massage–The same benefits of Pediatric Massage are available in Infant massage too, though the technique is even gentler and usually involves delicately rubbing the baby’s legs, torso, hands, and ankles to encourage sleep and relieve gas.

Pet Massage— Massage truly is for everyone…and your furry best friends are no different. I give my dog Dory a Pet Massage every so often and she loves it. It can be especially great for older dogs who have hip problems or issues getting around easily.

Which Type of Massage Therapy is Best for…

…Relaxation/Stress Reduction?

  • Swedish
  • Esalen
  • Hot Stone
  • Hot Bamboo
  • Trigger Point Therapy

…Pain?

  • Deep Tissue
  • Hot Bamboo
  • Trigger Point Therapy
  • Myofascial Release

...Muscle Tension Relief?

  • Swedish
  • Deep Tissue
  • Myofascial Release
  • Trigger Point Therapy

…Headaches?

  • Myofascial Release Massage
  • Trigger Point Therapy

…Depression and Anxiety?

  • Esalen
  • Swedish

…Athletic Performance & Injury Recovery?

  • Deep Tissue
  • Sports Massage
  • Cupping Massage
  • Thai
  • Myofascial Release
  • Trigger Point Therapy

…Arthritis?

  • Swedish Massage
  • Esalen Massage
  • Hot Stone Massage

…Fibromyalgia?

  • Swedish Massage
  • Esalen Massage
  • Hot Stone Massage
  • Trigger Point Therapy
  • Myofascial Release

Which Type of Massage Will YOU Choose?

As you can see, the wellness options in regards to massage are nearly limitless. And this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the types of massage you can choose from. There is a modality for every kind of need, whether it be pain relief, relaxation or emotional healing. If you’ve never had a massage before, start simple. I always recommend a Swedish Massage for first time massage sessions so that you can become accustomed to how a massage feels and I can get to know your body’s mechanics.

Specific complaints should always be discussed with your massage therapist in order to determine which type of massage experience will be best for you.

If you have questions regarding a modality—its techniques, how it can address an area of complaint, etc.—do not hesitate to contact me to discuss!

Have Questions About A Modality?

Contact me to discuss your unique needs.

Suzanne Schaper

Suzanne Schaper is a Board Certified Massage Therapist in Overland Park, KS. She loves nothing more that sharing her knowledge for health and wellness with her clientele. "A life free of pain and disease is a more full life." Suzanne enjoys assisting her clients in their pursuit of health and happiness.

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