When it comes to getting a massage, you might just book one at a nearby spa or wellness space without giving it a second thought. But if you’re new to booking one, with different types of massage techniques out there, which one should you choose? And how do you go about finding the “right” one for you?
Dr. Tom Ingegno, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese Medicine and chief clinician at Charm City Integrative Health in Baltimore, Maryland, says it’s a good idea to call and speak to a massage therapist or two first. You can explain why you’re seeking a massage — whether it’s for general relaxation or muscle pain, for example — and then choose a type of massage from there. “Interview practitioners,” he tells TZR. “Read their bio on the office’s website and call to ask questions. Many practitioners are trained in multiple systems and should be able to combine them in a way to provide the most benefit to their clients. Also, make sure that the practitioner is licensed, registered, or certified.”
Massage Therapist and Aromatherapist Alison Angold says that when you get a professional massage, it should be tailored specifically to your needs. “A professional and qualified massage therapist will be trained in not only the different massage techniques and movements, but also how and where to use them for maximum benefit to the client,” she tells TZR in an email. “They’ll also have a thorough knowledge of the body systems to know what the techniques are doing to the body, how and why they may help, and most importantly, when not to massage a person or particular area.” Beforehand, she says that the massage therapist should always carry out a thorough consultation. “If they don't, then leave,” she says. “This will determine the type of massage that is most suitable for you, along with any other health concerns or issues that the therapist should know about.”
Two Primary Massage Types: Spa & Therapeutic
Ingegno explains that, generally, massages come in two types: spa services and therapeutic services. “Spa services can be quite therapeutic, as well … they include massages that are for relaxation, aesthetic treatments to improve the skin tone and appearance, and generally use lighter pressure than therapeutic massages.” He says Swedish massage is a good example of this, as it uses mild to moderate pressure and focuses on a variety of techniques to relax muscles and release knots.
Therapeutic styles of massage, on the other hand, can be further broken down into Western versus Eastern styles of massage. “Many massage therapists combine different therapies in one session, depending on their unique training and what the client needs, says Ingegno. Suzy Lewis, massage therapist and facilities manager at Healing Hands, adds that there are so many different types of massage modalities, but it’s important to keep in mind that massage is subjective. “I don't like tomatoes, but a good majority of the world likes them,” she tells TZR in an email. “That doesn't make me wrong; it just means I don't like tomatoes. The same goes for massage. I personally do not like deep tissue work, but I try different therapists with different modalities and find the one that's right for me. Also, do not think of massage as a luxury, but as a necessity for your body.”
Stella Olmedo, massage therapist at Zen Therapy Massage, tells TZR she thinks there are four main reasons people seek out massage: to relax and unwind; for pain management; as part of an athletic regimen; and to maintain a healthy lifestyle (as part of self-care). Jay Larcher, of Jays Hands NYC, adds that the art of professional massage is all about wellness. “Wellness of the body and wellness of the mind,” he tells TZR in an email. “We are all stressed, and many times physical stress can lead to mental stress, and vice-versa. As massage professionals, our job is to use our hands to release the physical stress in our clients’ muscles, which in turn puts them in a relaxed physical and mental state.” He says that, oftentimes, people who get massages don’t know — and can’t even feel — that there is tension in certain areas until they receive the massage. “A lot of people go through life feeling fine or thinking they are fine,” he says. “It’s not until they lie on a massage table and relax — and have someone manipulate their muscle tissue and release the tension there — that they actually realize, ‘Wow, I really needed this.’”
Angold agrees, noting that the health benefits of a massage are plentiful, from improved circulation (so all the organs of the body will function better) and increased lymphatic circulation (which gives better protection against illness) to cell renewal in the skin and soothing the nerves and anxiety. Massages can also help with brain fog and help you focus better, as well as help digestion. Ahead, massage therapists weigh in on some of the most common types of massage so you can see which can be the best fit for you.
Angold says a Swedish Massage is a traditional body massage that manipulates the muscles and often the joints. The aim of a Swedish massage is to de-tense and de-stress the body through a relaxing or stimulating treatment. Lewis adds that it’s the most common type of massage. “It incorporates effleurage (long gliding/flowing strokes), petrissage (kneading), tapotement, cross fiber friction, and is very relaxing and therapeutic,” she says. This promotes circulation and softens connective tissue. “I always suggest that a client start with a Swedish massage and have an open dialogue with their massage therapist about different techniques,” she says. Olgedo agrees. “For a first-time massage client, we recommend receiving a Swedish massage,” she says. “It helps the client familiarize themselves with therapeutic and healing touch. As they continue to receive massages, they can definitely look into other modalities in the future.”
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
“Lymphatic drainage massage is a much gentler technique that skims the skin's surface to remove any excess swelling or lymph [fluid] that has collected,” Angold explains. “These techniques can be used on anyone to keep the lymphatic system working well, but are particularly useful for someone who suffers from oedema [fluid retention].” Rebecca Faria is a licensed therapist in lymphatic drainage massage and founder of Detox by Rebecca, which combines manual lymphatic drainage techniques with high-tech equipment. She adds that lymphatic drainage massage is a form of manual therapy that features light, slow strokes toward the heart, along the lymphatic pathways.
“While blood is pumped via the heart, the lymphatic system must instead rely on muscular contractions to keep lymph moving through lymphatic vessels,” she tells TZR in an email. “In lymphatic drainage massage, the therapist systematically and rhythmically stretches skin to increase lymph flow throughout the body. More experienced LDM therapists work with the lymph on deeper levels of the body, including muscles, tendons, and viscera [internal organs].” Faria says you can also try certain lymphatic drainage massages at home, which will help release toxins from the body, including on your face, stomach, and legs.
A sports massage can be done as a full-body massage or on specific parts of the body that need the most attention, Faria explains. “Deep pressure may be alternated with soothing strokes, depending on your needs,” she says. “Sports massage is a good option if you have a repetitive use injury to a muscle, such as what you may get from playing a sport. It’s also a good option if you’re prone to injuries, because it can be used to help prevent them.”
A medical/clinical massage is usually done with a medical team — physician, massage therapist, physical therapist, and so on, Olmedo says. “It is geared more toward pain management, and little to no creme or oil is used during the session.” Problem areas can be focused on that can be a result of anything from stress injuries and migraines to sprains and lower back pain.
Deep Tissue Massage
“A deep tissue massage allows for deeper pressure on focused areas, such as knots, areas of pain, or tension,” says Olmedo. “The massage strokes are done at a slower pace. While practicing this massage, it’s very important that a therapist check in with their client so they can adjust their pressure accordingly and not hurt the client and create an unpleasant experience.” She says seasoned clients and athletes may favor this type of massage.
Trigger Point Massage
Faria says a trigger point massage is best suited for people who have injuries, chronic pain, or a specific issue or condition. “Sometimes, areas of tightness in the muscle tissues, known as trigger points, can cause pain in other parts of the body,” she says. “By focusing on relieving trigger points, this type of massage can reduce pain.” Ingegno adds that trigger points are commonly called knots — and they negatively impact function and cause pain or numbness. “Manual pressure with the hands, or different tools, can be used to release these points and restore function,” he says.
Shiatsu massage is Japanese in origin and traditionally would be performed with the client wearing comfortable clothes and on the floor, Ingegno explains. “The meridians [accupressure points] would be massaged using a variety of techniques to address functional problems,” he says. For instance, it can do everything from relieve stress to treat pain and health issues.
Thai massage is best for people who want a more active form of massage and want to reduce and relieve pain and stress, Faria says. “It can also help improve flexibility, circulation, and energy levels,” she says. “It works the entire body using a sequence of movements that are similar to yogic stretching. Your therapist will use their palms and fingers to apply firm pressure to your body. You’ll also be stretched and twisted into various positions.” Ingegno adds that in some places, practitioners may have a bar mounted to the ceiling to allow them to balance while placing a foot on the patient. “This way, they can have control of the amount of weight behind the massage technique,” he says.
Amma massage is a Chinese massage that literally means “push pull” and uses a variety of massage techniques to work the meridians and associated muscles to help heal the body, says Ingegno. “It also combines acupressure to help alleviate symptoms.” In addition to physical ailments, it can help boost your mental health, too.
Tui Na Massage
Tui na massage is another massage with Chinese origins that's name means “push and lift,” Ingegno explains. “Some may argue that it isn’t a traditional massage, as it can be very focused on one issue and generally is more aggressive,” he says. “This works the meridians and acupressure points and can be quite forceful.” Practitioners do this by using their finger, hand, elbow, knee, or foot to apply pressure to a certain body location. As a result, it removes blockages to promote positive energy instead.
Hot Stone Massage
When hot stones are added to a body massage and used to perform deeper movements, or are placed on areas of the body to bring comfort, you’ve got yourself a Hot stone massage, Angold explains. “It produces warmth and restores body balance,” she says. Often, flat volcanic rocks are used — they retain heat and are believed to channel healing energies.
Reflexology uses gentle to firm pressure on different pressure points of the feet, hands, and ears. “It’s best for people who are looking to relax or restore their natural energy levels,” says Faria. “It’s also a good option for those who aren’t comfortable being touched on the entire body.”
“A prenatal massage is a special modality specifically for pregnant women,” Olmedo says. It can help with pain associated with pregnancy, and massage therapists may require a doctor’s note to get clearance to proceed with sessions. “It’s usually recommended that women wait until their second trimester to receive this massage,” she adds. Otherwise, it can cause dizziness and impact morning sickness.
Angold is also an aromatherapist and says an aromatherapy massage uses essential oils tailored to the client’s needs. “They can not only benefit from the massage techniques, but also the effects of the oils,” she says. “Often, different movements are used in an aromatherapy massage, including lymphatic drainage movements and pressure points.” This type of massage promotes mindfulness and calm. Olmedo says this modality incorporates Swedish massage and essential oils. “We usually add a few drops of lavender essential oil to our massage creme — it leaves a great scent and helps with relaxation,” she says. “A massage therapist can also use the essential oil in a diffuser to add a rich aroma to the treatment room.”
All in all, Larcher says you should investigate various modalities to see what works best for you, as well as speak to potential massage therapists who practice. “You should feel comfortable with your potential massage therapist, and you should be able to communicate effectively with them, as you will be trusting them to work on your body.”