Top 9 Most Popular Types of Massage

Woman receiving deep tissue massage
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There are many types of massage therapy, from Swedish and deep tissue to shiatsu. Whether you'd like to branch out a bit or have a health condition or injury, choosing a style of massage can be confusing if you're not quite sure what it involves. Here is a list of the most popular types of massage (including some that may be new to you).

popular types of massage
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Swedish Massage Therapy

Swedish massage is the standard type of massage offered in most clinics, gyms, spas, and wellness centers. Using lotion or oil, massage therapists typically begin with broad general strokes and then transition to specific strokes to address problem areas.

There are five basic strokes in Swedish massage therapy:

  • Effleurage (long smooth strokes)
  • Petrissage (kneading, rolling, and lifting)
  • Friction (wringing or small circular movements)
  • Tapotement (percussion)
  • Vibration (rocking and shaking movements)

Swedish massage provides full-body muscle relaxation, and it can be especially helpful if you're recovering from an injury.

Aromatherapy Massage

An aromatherapy massage is a Swedish massage with scented plant oils (known as essential oils) added to the massage oil. Extracted from flowers and other plant parts, essential oils offer a pleasing scent and are believed to have healing properties. Lavender for instance, has been found to promote relaxation. Although different essential oils may be selected to address specific needs, the therapist typically uses pre-blended oils to relax, energize, or uplift.

The soothing effects of aromatherapy massage may benefit a variety of conditions, including depression, insomnia, certain digestive disorders, and pain.

Before receiving an aromatherapy massage, make sure you're not allergic to any of the plants used in the oils, since they may cause a skin reaction.

Hot Stone Massage

As the name implies, a hot stone massage uses heated stones. The massage therapist places warm, smooth stones on specific points on the body and also holds the stones while giving the massage. The stones are usually basalt (a volcanic rock that retains heat well).

The warmth of the smooth stones can be quite relaxing. Also, heat has been shown to relax tight muscles, so the hot stones allow the therapist to relieve areas of muscle tension quickly.

If you have certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or varicose veins, you should check with your health care provider if you plan on getting a hot stone massage.

Deep Tissue Massage

Deep tissue massage is a focused, therapeutic massage that targets muscle knots (also known as "adhesions") and specific problem areas in the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. Using deliberate, slow strokes or friction across the grain of the muscle, the therapist can address chronic tight or painful muscles, repetitive strain, postural problems, or injuries.

While it's true that the pressure of deep tissue is generally more intense than that of a Swedish massage, it shouldn't have to be painful to be effective. If you're experiencing pain, let your massage therapist know right away.

This type of massage is particularly beneficial for people with chronic pain or lingering injuries that cause limited mobility. It's effective in treating repetitive stress injuries such as tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Shiatsu Massage

A form of Japanese bodywork, shiatsu massage involves localized pressure using the therapist's fingers (or sometimes hands and elbows), applied in a rhythmic sequence along the body. Each point is held for about two to eight seconds.

With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, the goal of shiatsu is to stimulate acupressure points on the body to improve the flow of energy and help regain balance.

Since no oil or lotion is used, you wear loose clothing. Shiatsu is normally done on a mat on the floor or on a low massage table and is often used to reduce stress and protect against stress-related health issues. Some research has shown that shiatsu may be effective for treating pain, nausea and insomnia.

Thai Massage

A unique blend of assisted yoga, passive stretching, and pressing massage movements, Thai massage is more energizing than other forms of massage. It's a little bit like yoga without doing the work, as the therapist moves and stretches you in a sequence of postures, usually on a mat on the floor.

Like shiatsu, Thai massage aligns the energies of the body. The massage therapist uses rhythmic compression along the body's energy lines to reduce stress and improve flexibility and range of motion. It is done fully clothed.

This type of massage can improve range of motion and back pain, and has been shown to be useful in reducing anxiety.

Pregnancy Massage

Also known as prenatal massage, pregnancy massage is customized to an expectant mother's needs but is most often used to promote relaxation. Since many pregnant women suffer from lower back pain and swollen ankles especially in the later months, prenatal massage is a relatively safe, drug-free way to provide relief.

Massage therapists who have received specialized training and are certified in prenatal massage know how to position and support the woman's body during the massage, modify techniques, and avoid certain areas and techniques during pregnancy. Most will have a special table that allows the woman to rest comfortably and safely during the massage. Ideally, you should seek out a practitioner who is experienced and licensed in prenatal massage.

Reflexology

Like having your feet worked on? The therapist uses finger pressure and techniques such as kneading and rubbing to promote relaxation and healing in the body. Reflexology is based on "reflex areas" on the hands and feet, whose energy is believed to be connected to organs and other body parts.

Reflexology dates back to ancient civilizations but was refined by American physiotherapist Eunice Ingram in the 1930s. This can be a deeply relaxing therapy, especially if you stand all day or have tired, achy feet. You remove your shoes and socks but otherwise remain clothed.

Sports Massage

Designed to prevent and treat injuries, improve flexibility, and enhance athletic performance, sports massage can be used by athletes of all abilities to prepare for or recover from sporting events.

The idea behind sports massage is to manipulate the body's soft tissues, and focus on certain muscle groups depending on which sport the athlete plays.

In sports massage, the strokes are generally faster than a typical Swedish massage. The therapist may also include compression, pressure point therapy, friction, and joint mobilization.

How to Find a Massage Therapist

Discuss your interest in massage therapy with your healthcare provider, who may be able to refer you a certified massage therapist in your area. You can also use the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) online directory to search for a certified therapist in your area.

Know, that requirements for massage therapists vary by state, though they often require graduation from an approved program. If a massage therapist has a certification from the NCBTMB, it means that they underwent a background check in addition to schooling and an exam.

When considering a therapist, always ask about their certifications and training, particularly in the specific technique(s) you are considering. For example, not all therapists are trained to perform prenatal massage.

You might also consider checking reviews of the business you are considering to look for any reports of injuries or complaints.

Cost of Massage

The American Massage Therapy Association's Industry Survey reported in 2019 that the average price of a one-hour massage was $75. However, the cost for a massage can vary widely and depend not only on the length of massage, but the technician providing the service and/or their employer, the technique, and your location.

Some health insurance plans may offer full or partial coverage for massage, so be sure to check with your insurance provider. You may need to have certain medical conditions or a physician's referral in order to receive coverage, and you may need to find an in-network massage therapist. There may also be limits on the number of appointments or cost that is covered.

A Word From Verywell

When you are looking for massage therapy, be sure to check which type of massage a practitioner can provide. Match that with the benefits you hope to get from the massage session. You may want to chat with several different practitioners to find the one who understands your needs and is used to working with people with similar goals. Be sure also to discuss any allergies, such as to scents or plant oils, so your massage will be relaxing and beneficial without any concerns.

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