What is it?

Massage involves using the hands to perform movements on the skin to promote relaxation, healing and wellbeing. The main techniques of Western massage involve stroking, kneading, rubbing or pressing on the body.

Aromatherapy massage uses essential oils, derived from the flowers, leaves, stalks and roots of certain plants and trees. Oriental massage techniques often use direct hand pressure either through clothing or directly on the skin. Ayurvedic (Indian) massage uses many aromatic oils.
History and theory

Massage has been practised for thousands of years in many cultures: in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, for example. The oriental traditions of acupressure, foot and hand massage, and therapeutic massage have survived for thousands of years and are still widely practised in the East and the West. They’ve also influenced the development of modern techniques such as zone therapy and reflexology.

Swedish gymnast Per Henrik Ling was largely responsible for re-establishing therapeutic massage, based on anatomical principles, in Europe in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, French chemists, doctors and beauticians revived the study and use of plant oils in healing and massage, leading to the popularity of aromatherapy today.

Modern Western massage techniques are based on an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the body. The hand movements are used to facilitate the circulation of blood and the lymphatic system and to release muscular tension and joint stiffness.

Oriental massage therapies are based on the ‘meridian’ system of energetic channels that course through the body. Pressure techniques are thought to release blockages and improve the flow of vital energy (or ‘chi’) in these channels.

What’s it good for?

When the body’s touched, receptors in the skin send messages to the brain causing the release of chemicals such as endorphins. These produce a sense of relaxation and wellbeing and can also relieve pain.

Massage also improves the flow of blood and lymph fluid, helps to eliminate waste products from the body, relaxes the muscles and can help regulate hormone production and stimulate the immune system. It’s also useful for specific ailments such as asthma, depression, neck and back pain, insomnia, immune deficiency disorders and diabetes.

It can be helpful during pregnancy and labour, too, and is used to help premature babies thrive and mothers bond with their infants.

What does it involve?

Western massage therapies are performed directly on the skin. Clothing is usually removed for a full-body massage, although underwear can be worn if your prefer. Towels cover the areas not being massaged and help to keep the body warm. In oriental massage therapies, which use pressure techniques, clothing is usually kept on.

A full-body massage usually takes about an hour. If only part of the body is being massaged, such as the neck and shoulders, the massage may last 15 to 30 minutes.

Finding a practitioner

Massage therapists can be found at most health centres, sports centres, beauty clinics, health farms and complementary medicine clinics. One of the most widely accepted general massage qualifications is the ITEC diploma. Alternatively, practitioners may have diplomas in specific massage techniques such as reflexology (treatment for the feet and sometimes hands), aromatherapy, shiatsu (a Japanese massage therapy) or Indian head massage.

To find a qualified practitioner we suggest you contact one of the relevant organisations listed in Useful contacts.
Take care

* Massage shouldn’t be applied to varicose veins, anywhere that fractures are present or any parts of the skin with swelling, bruising, cuts or infection. Care should be taken during pregnancy and in the case of cancer.
* Massage should be comfortable and relaxing. If it’s painful, or if you’re not happy with the way that touch is being applied, tell your practitioner or ask them to stop.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.