What Is Therapeutic Massage?

Man receiving facial massage
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What Is Therapeutic Massage?

Therapeutic massage is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practice that is often used to treat muscle pain, injury, and stiffness. Massage therapy has more recently been used for the treatment of mental and emotional problems, including stress, anxiety, and depression.

Also considered a relaxation technique, massage therapy may be able to help reduce tension and elicit feelings of calm and deep relaxation. Additionally, massage may be able to curb feelings of fear and anxiety and assist in managing other panic disorder symptoms.

CAM practices have grown in popularity and are often used in combination with more traditional medical practices. Some other common CAM practices include acupuncture, yoga, and aromatherapy

Types of Therapeutic Massage

There are many different kinds of massage offered by massage therapists. Depending on the style, massages often vary in pressure and muscle group focus. Some of the most common types of massage include:

  • Swedish massage: This is the most popular type of massage and is meant to help relax the body and mind. It involves a total body massage where a person lies on the massage table while the massage therapist slowly works through different muscle groups. Swedish massage also helps circulate blood flow, relieve mental stress, and reduce muscle pain and tension.
  • Deep tissue: This kind of massage is similar to Swedish massage. However, the massage therapist uses more pressure and intensity when working through the muscles. Deep tissue massage is aimed at releasing tense and painful muscle knots that are often associated with physical discomfort, stress, and headaches.
  • Sports massage: Often used by athletes, sports massage is used to assist in athletic training. This type of massage is focused on preparing muscles for intense training. Additionally, sports massage is used to help the muscles recover after intense performance or injury.
  • Shiatsu: Frequently referred to as acupressure, Shiatsu is a form of massage that is similar to acupuncture. Shiatsu originated in Japan and means “finger pressure.” Instead of using needles like acupuncture, the practitioner uses their fingers on pressure points. Pushing these points is thought to help release energy and restore balance back to the body and mind.

Techniques

Massage therapy involves manipulating the muscles by kneading, rubbing, pressing, or patting different muscle groups. Some of the techniques used include:

  • Effleurage: This involves light or deep strokes intended to help relieve tension and induce relaxations.
  • Petrissage: This technique involves kneading muscles and can be helpful for relieving muscle tightness or spasms.
  • Tapotement: This involves tapping or cupping the skin to create a percussion effect.
  • Friction: In this technique, the massage therapist applies small, circular, focused pressure to specific points on the body.

Massage therapists use their hands and massage oils to work through various groups of muscles. Some massage therapists will also include aromatherapy oils and tranquil music to help create a peaceful and deeply relaxing experience.

What Therapeutic Massage Can Help With

Therapeutic massage is often used to help relieve muscle tension and pain. It may be used on its own, but it is also often used in conjunction with other traditional pain treatments. Therapeutic massage may also be helpful for helping people deal with symptoms of conditions including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive disorders
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Panic disorder
  • Stress

Therapeutic massage can help reduce muscle tension, which is why it may help relieve some symptoms that are associated with stress and anxiety.

Benefits of Therapeutic Massage

Massage therapy can help the body relax, which in turn can help one let go of anxious and fearful thoughts. Massage can relieve muscle pain and tension, improve circulation, and increase flexibility. As a relaxation technique, massage therapy can work to manage the fight-or-flight response, or stress reaction, that is typically overactive among people with anxiety disorders.

The fight-or-flight reaction is responsible for causing fearful thoughts and reactions that often far outweigh any actual threat in the environment. For example, people with agoraphobia often fear having a panic attack in a large crowd or a confined area where it would feel embarrassing or be difficult to escape.

The fight-or-flight reaction typically leads to uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, excessive sweating, and chest pain. Massage therapy can have an opposing effect on the body by eliciting the relaxation response, reducing tension, lowering heart rate, and generally making a person feel calmer.

Physical Benefits
  • Less muscle pain and tension

  • Improve circulation and flexibility

  • Lower heart rate

Mental Benefits
  • Fewer anxious thoughts

  • Tame fight-or-flight response

  • Lower tension and more feelings of calm

Effectiveness

There is evidence suggesting that massage therapy may be an effective adjunctive treatment for conditions such as depression and anxiety. Some of these include:

  • One study found that massage therapy was an effective, non-invasive, and cost-effective way to help reduce symptoms of pain, anxiety, and depression among people with cancer.
  • Another study found that people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who used therapeutic massage experienced significant decreases in symptoms. However, these improvements were roughly the same as those experienced by people in other relaxation-based treatments, suggesting that inducing a relaxation response is generally beneficial in those with GAD.
  • A 2018 review of the research found that the current data suggest there is at least some benefit for therapeutic massage as an adjunctive treatment for anxiety and depression. The authors of the study suggest that because such treatments are popular, a collaborative approach that incorporates traditional therapies with therapeutic massage may be beneficial for those experiencing psychiatric conditions.  

Things to Consider

Generally, massage therapy only has a few potentially adverse side effects. Many people experience some soreness throughout their body the first few days following a massage.

However, you should never feel pain or discomfort during or after a massage. Massage is also contraindicated for certain medical conditions. Always consult your doctor before getting a massage if you are unsure if it's right for you.

Studies have supported the safety and effectiveness of utilizing massage therapy for stress, anxiety, and depression—but if you are experiencing panic attacks and other symptoms of panic disorder, talk to your doctor before trying this and other CAM practices.

Your doctor will be able to assist you with conventional treatment options, such as medication and therapy. Massage may be beneficial in helping you manage your condition but is not a substitute for traditional medical care. Massage therapy may be incorporated into your standard treatment plan to assist you in coping with panic disorder.

How to Get Started

Massage therapy is offered at many spas, salons, and wellness centers. However, as it continues to become a more mainstream treatment option, massage is now offered at many hospitals and clinics. Some insurance companies may even cover massage therapy services.

When meeting with your massage therapist for the first time, make sure to discuss your medical history, including your panic and anxiety symptoms.

It is important to schedule these services with a licensed or certified massage therapist. This ensures that you will get treatment from a qualified practitioner who has followed the standards and requirements for their state licensure.

Licensed massage therapists can be found through website directories, including the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork and the American Massage Therapy Association. Let the massage therapist know if you have any areas of discomfort throughout your body. Also discuss what you hope to get out of the massage, such as muscle or stress relief.

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