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Massage 101: The world of touch

With more than 200 variations of massage, how do you know what’s what, and what’s best for you?
/ Source: WebMD

Almost anyone - from infants to seniors - can enjoy the benefits of a good massage. Massage is one of the oldest healing arts. Chinese records dating back 3,000 years document its use.

THE ANCIENT Hindus, Persians, and Egyptians applied forms of massage for many ailments, and Hippocrates wrote papers recommending the use of rubbing and friction for joint and circulatory problems.

Today, the benefits of massage are varied and far-reaching, says Les Sweeney, executive vice president of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP). Massage therapy has proven beneficial for many chronic conditions, including low back pain, arthritis, bursitis, fatigue, high blood pressure, diabetes, immunity suppression, infertility, smoking cessation, depression, and more. And, as so many of us already know, massage also helps relieve the stress and tension of everyday living that can lead to disease and illness.

But with more than 200 variations of massage, bodywork, and somatic therapies, how do you know what’s what, and what’s best for you? First, a definition of the different therapy categories is in order, says Sweeney.

Massage is the application of soft-tissue manipulation techniques to the body, generally intended to reduce stress and fatigue while improving circulation. It taps into the energy systems in the body.

Bodywork includes various forms of touch therapies that may use manipulation, movement, and/or repatterning to affect structural changes to the body.

Somatic, which means “of the body,” is often used to describe a body/mind or whole-body approach as opposed to a physical perspective only.

According to William F. Burton, Jr., a professional massage therapist/bodyworker and co-owner of the Enraptured Day Spa in Philadelphia, most varieties of massage and bodywork therapies can be broken down into four broad categories:

Contemporary Western massage

Oriental methods

Structural/functional/movement integration

Non-Oriental energetic methods

Here’s a brief explanation of some of the more common techniques of Western and Oriental massage.

Swedish massage: This is the predominant example of Western massage and is the most commonly used method in the United States. Developed in Sweden in the 1830s, it uses a system of long, gliding strokes, kneading, and percussion and tapping techniques on the more superficial layers of muscles. It is designed to increase circulation, which may improve healing and decrease swelling from an injury. This technique also results in generalized relaxation.

Neuromuscular massage: Trigger point massage and myotherapy are varieties of neuromuscular massage, which applies concentrated pressure on trigger points of pain and passive stretching of specific muscles.

Deep tissue massage: This approach is used to alleviate chronic muscle pain by reaching deeper muscles in problem areas.

Sports massage: This uses techniques similar to deep tissue massage but more specifically adapted to deal with the needs of athletes (both professional and the weekend variety); it’s often used before or after athletic events as part of an athlete’s training and to promote healing from injuries.

Manual lymph drainage massage: This approach improves the flow of lymph fluid with rhythmic strokes and is used primarily in conditions with poor lymph flow, such as edema.

Oriental methods of massage are based on the principles of Chinese medicine and the flow of energy or chi through the body’s meridians, or energy points, says Burton. In Oriental massage techniques, pressure is applied by finger or thumb tips to predetermined points rather than by the sweeping broad strokes of Western massage.

There are more than a dozen varieties of Oriental massage and bodywork therapy, but the most common forms in the U.S. are acupressure, shiatsu, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure.

Acupressure and shiatsu: These are similar varieties of finger pressure massage, with pressure applied to specific points that correspond with acupuncture points. In acupressure and shiatsu, pressure is applied to specific points with the thumb, finger, and palm to release muscle tension and increase circulation. Acupressure is the more generic term used for this approach and shiatsu is the Japanese version.

Jin Shin Jyutsu: This approach comes from an ancient Japanese healing tradition that uses touch to restore the internal flow of energy through the body by releasing energetic blockages. In this therapy the touch is very light a holds each pressure point for several minutes.

Jin Shin Do Bodymind Acupressure: Developed by a California psychotherapist, this approach applies stronger acupressure on the points and for a longer period of time than does Jin Shin Jyutsu. It focuses on the deep release of muscular tension through gentle yet deep finger pressure.

Thai massage: At least 2,500 years old, Thai massage focuses on balancing energy. If you’re receiving a Thai massage, you’ll be placed into yoga-like postures while the “Sen” energy lines are compressed rhythmically with hands, thumbs, forearms, elbows, knees, and feet.

Tui Na: Tui Na has been used in China for more than 2,000 years. The combination of massage and manipulation techniques is designed to improve the flow of energy so the body can naturally heal itself.

The strokes that massage practitioners use also vary, as do their effects, says Burton. A few of the more common strokes and their effects include:

Feather stroking: soothing/sedative (may be ticklish)

Fan stroking: soothing

Circular thumb stroking: loosens tight areas

Kneading: loosens and stimulates

Skin rolling: stimulates

Compression/pressure: breaks down muscular adhesions

Percussion: stimulates (fast); relaxes (slow)

If you have a certain technique in mind, ask the massage therapist about his or her training, suggests Jeanne Girard, a vice president of the American Massage Therapy Association and a massage therapist in Canon City, Colorado. “If the therapist doesn’t have training in what you need, he or she will refer you to someone who does.”

As beneficial as massage can be, there are some people who shouldn’t have one, says James Dillard, MD, DC, L.Ac, Oxford Health Plans’ medical director for complementary and alternative medicine and author of Chronic Pain Solution. “You want to have intact skin, muscles, bones, and tissues before having a massage,” says Dillard. That means if you have any fractures, infections, active cancer, orthopaedic conditions, or skin problems, massage is a no-no until you’ve recovered.

When choosing a type of massage, know what’s best for you, says Dillard. “Do you want a gentle, serene experience, or would you like more pressure?” Don’t be afraid to communicate with the massage therapist, he adds. Tell the therapist about any medical conditions or concerns you have, and if you’re uncomfortable at any point during the massage, let the therapist know.

To get the most benefit from the massage, try to relax for the rest of the day, Dillard says. “You want the glow to last.”

Having a massage on your lunch hour and then going back to a stressful afternoon on the job is not a great idea, agrees Jeanne Girard. “Don’t overtax your body.”

Girard also suggests that you drink plenty of water before and after the massage to help flush out the toxins that massage loosens up. (One other piece of advice, courtesy of Dillard: If you do drink a lot of water before the massage, make sure you go to the bathroom before the massage!)

Stretching beforehand allows the therapist to get into your muscle tissue more easily, says Girard; when it’s cold outside, a warm shower or bath beforehand will also loosen your muscles.

And just how often should you have a massage? That’s easy, says Dr. Dillard. “As often as you can afford it!”

Thirty-three states require massage therapists to be licensed, says ABMP’s Les Sweeney. To find a practitioner near you, you can visit ABMP’s web site or the web sites of the American Massage Therapy Association, or the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia.

WebMD content is provided to MSNBC by the editorial staff of WebMD. The MSNBC editorial staff does not participate in the creation of WebMD content and is not responsible for WebMD content. Remember that editorial content is never a substitute for a visit to a health care professional.