Ahhh... the soothing sounds of gentle music as you blissfully lie beneath a soft sheet, cocooned in relaxing smells and dim light. You find your nerves unbundling and your troubles slipping away as seasoned hands massage your back and shoulders.
If you've ever been to a spa to enjoy the relaxing benefits of a Swedish massage, you're familiar with this pattern. If you haven't, or feel that a massage might not really benefit you, think again.
In particular, Swedish massage incorporates several specific techniques that combine to give you a relaxing and beneficial experience. They include:
- Long, sweeping strokes over a muscle that help to break up trigger points
- Kneading the muscle to work deeper into the affected area
- Rhythmically tapping an area with cupped hands to facilitate relaxation
- Friction or rubbing a muscle group rapidly with the palms to stimulate warmth
- Vibration or using the fingertips to quickly shake a muscle back and forth to loosen the area
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Why Is Swedish Massage So Popular?
Swedish massage is a great introductory massage for many reasons, the first being that it involves firm, yet gentle strokes. You're placed on a flat, elevated massage table with a cutout for your face.
Unlike strictly pressure-point styles of massage like Shiatsu or stretching techniques such as Thai massage where a masseuse manipulates you while on the floor, Swedish massage is designed specifically to enhance circulation and blood flow to the large muscle groups.
The popularity of massage as a therapeutic or holistic health tool, beyond just a relaxing splurge, has been on the rise. Fans of Swedish massage swear by its overall health benefits and in fact, several studies have looked at the technique's benefits for issues other than just stiffness or muscle aches and pains.
Over the past few decades, a variety of studies have linked Swedish massage to a number of benefits, such as:
What to Expect at Your Massage
The typical Swedish massage experience begins with the client lying on their stomach with their clothes removed and a towel draped over them to maintain privacy. If you're uncomfortable removing all of your clothes, you can choose to keep some items on, such as a bra or underwear.
The Swedish massage therapist will then slowly progress through the five techniques detailed above as he or she massages your neck, back, arms and legs. When this is complete, they may ask you to turn over so they can focus on the front of these areas.
Be sure to tell your therapist if there are areas you'd like them to focus on or to avoid. In addition, give your therapist feedback on their pressure so that you remain relaxed and comfortable at all times.
Benefits of Massage Therapy
Swedish massage therapy can be helpful with a number of other physical challenges, such as reduction in scar tissue by physically manipulating the fibers of the tissue, allowing the scar tissue to be successfully reabsorbed into the skin. Additionally, it can aid with lymphatic drainage, where the long strokes of the therapist help move fluids successfully out of clogged areas.
Interestingly, many patients and therapists swear by massage as a way to reduce constipation or digestive upset, since the increased circulatory benefits and relaxation of the abdominal and lower back muscles can help relieve symptoms. In fact, a 2014 study from the British journal Nursing Standard highlights a number of the ways abdominal massage encouraging muscle contraction, nudging the gut to move things along.
Swedish massage's main benefit is the overall relaxation that it provides. A standard Swedish session lasts for 30 or 60 minutes and addresses most major muscle groups of the body. The session is usually performed on a soft massage table in an environment that's meant to relax the recipient.
2. Increased Circulation
The strokes of the massage relax individual muscles, while the overall experience eliminates mental stress but they also replicate the movements of the circulatory system.
By performing the strokes toward the heart, Swedish massage drains metabolic waste from the limbs of the body. Some of the strokes used in Swedish therapy increase blood flow, which further quickens the removal of bodily waste.
3. Pain Relief
Swedish massage is also used as an integral part of pain management protocols for sports injuries and chronic pain. Sessions can target specific areas of pain like a sprained ankle, or they can be used to help manage the chronic pain that comes with conditions like arthritis.
By using strokes that improve circulation and increase body-wide relaxation, the massage therapist can help make many painful conditions more bearable.
4. Decreased Fatigue
One of the latest studies examines the correlation between Swedish massage and reduction in fatigue for cancer patients. In March of 2015, Emory University announced a continuation of its clinical trials relating to the biological benefits of massage therapy.
The Emory University announcement reads: "Previous research… has already shown that massage therapy can boost the immune system and decrease anxiety for people who do not have cancer... We believe that there are many positive effects to be gained by therapeutic massage and we hope to prove that, among other biological advantages, massage may diminish the incapacitation that cancer-related fatigue can cause for our patients."
5. Reduced Depression and Anxiety
Massage therapy is also being investigated as an aide to patients with more neuromuscular disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). A Iranian 2013 study published in Clinical Rehabilitation looked at 48 individuals with MS who participated in a five-week massage experiment. They were assigned to one of four groups: massage therapy, exercise therapy, combined massage-exercise therapy and control group.
Compared with the controls, patients in the massage group experienced less depression, lowered anxiety, enhanced social function, better self-esteem and improved body image. This ties into the idea that massage reduces cortisol, or the "stress" hormone, and may help the body devote more resources to healing.
Massage Therapy Risks and Warnings
While getting a Swedish massage can improve your well-being, there are several conditions that may cause them to be harmful to your health. Individuals with active infections, skin diseases, osteoporosis, healing fractures, diabetes, hemophilia or cardiac conditions should check with their doctor before receiving a massage.
In addition, people with varicose veins, blood clots or women who are pregnant may be at greater risk if massaged. If you have any doubt, it's always best to get medical clearance from your physician beforehand.
In addition, while the research remains inconclusive, many massage therapists feel that their techniques can lead to the release of toxins into your bloodstream. Because of this, it's commonly recommended that people receiving a massage drink a lot of water for the remainder of the day to help their liver and pancreas process any excess toxins. Doing so may help you avoid feeling nauseous, fatigued or excessively sore afterward.
- American Massage Therapy Association
- Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals: Massage Glossary
- Emory University News
- PubMed.gov: Massage therapy and exercise therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis
- Mother Earth News: Abdominal Massage for Constipation Relief
- IMayo Clinic: Massage: Get in Touch With its Many Benefits
- Albany Massage: Swedish Massage Techniques- The 5 Steps of Swedish Massage
- Acupuncture Massage College: What is Shiatsu Massage?
- Very Well Health: Should You Try Thai Massage?
- Arthritis Foundation: Benefits of Massage Therapy
- Evidenced Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine: Effects of Swedish Massage Therapy on Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, and Inflammatory Markers in Hypertensive Women
- American Massage Therapy Association: Massage Therapy May Boost Immune System Functioning
- Institute for Integrative Healthcare: Can Massage Therapy Reduce Headache Occurrence?
- Massage Magazine: 5 Benefits of Massage for Fibromyalgia Patients
- American Massage Therapy Association: What To Expect at Your Massage Session
- Structura Body Therapies: Benefits of Massage for Scar Tissue
- Massage Today: Traditional Massage Therapy in the Treatment and Management of Lymphedema
- University of Illinois Chicago: Massage Therapy Improves Circulation, Eases Muscle Soreness
- Massage School Notes: Swedish Massage Contraindications
- Pain Doctor: 5 Types of Massage That Can Help With Pain
- Massage Heights: 6 Benefits of Swedish Massage
James Mulcahy is a New York City-based licensed massage therapist with more than 1,500 hours of training in anatomy, myology and pathology. He currently works as a freelance writer and has contributed to Huffington Post, New York Press, British Airway’s High Life, Metromix and many other publications.