What is Swedish Massage?

For thousands of years the benefits of massage have been recognised. Each generation experiments with and adds to the myriad methods which provide relaxation and relief from stiffness and pain. Certainly references to massage appear in ancient documents in India, China, Japan, the Middle East and ancient Rome and Greece. Physician Hippocrates defined it as “the art of rubbing”.

Massage has woven its way through modern history, too. Widely used in Europe in the Renaissance, it appears to have been popularised in the 1850s by two American physicians who had studied in Sweden. The technique is generally attributed (though probably wrongly) to a Swedish fencing master Per Henrik Ling, became less used in the mid-1900s when patients and practitioners favoured more scientific treatments. Then in the 1970s massage was rekindled in association with athletics and competitive sports.

Swedish Massage

Now there are something between 80 and 100 distinctive kinds of massage (one website lists 160). Of these the best known and most popular is what is generally known as Swedish Massage. The Swedish or Classic Massage technique is universally known: a full-body massage that uses a combination of long strokes, kneading motion and friction on the layers of muscle just beneath the skin. Rubbing the underlying layers of tissue generates friction which increases the blood flow to the area. This results in a sensation of warmth, wellbeing and relaxation which can alleviate a number of circulatory symptoms.

What to expect from a Swedish Massage Session

On your first visit, the practitioner will ask you about any pre-existing conditions or injuries that he or she should know about. A massage is not advised if you have certain serious medical conditions, such as thrombosis or phlebitis (inflammation of the veins); you may ask your doctor and let the therapist know if you are concerned. And ensure that practitioner you’ve chosen is a member of, or is accredited by, an association or professional body.

Swedish Massage is very much a hands-on procedure, so be prepared to strip down to the level you are comfortable. When you lie on the couch or treatment table, you’ll be covered with a sheet or towel; only the part of you being massaged will be exposed, the rest is covered by a technique called ‘draping’. Some people are comfortable to be naked under the covering while being treated, others prefer to stay in their underwear; either is acceptable.

Swedish massage what to expect

Using a light oil to help the gliding movements, the practitioner will begin to work over the whole body, using a variety of massaging techniques. Here are the basic ones are:

Type of Massage The Method The Effect
Stroking or effleurage Smooth gentle action where the hands glide rhythmically over the body, following the direction of the muscle fibres. Used all over the body to relax tense muscles and improve circulation.
Kneading or petrissage Squeezing and releasing the flesh (like kneading bread dough) – rhythmically with alternate hands Stretches and relaxes muscles – used in particular in the fleshy parts of the body (thighs etc), used to break up tension and scar tissue in the muscles
Friction or frottage Deep even pressure applied with the thumbs, knuckles or elbow to a specific spot or in small circular motion around the area For deep penetration into the muscle tissue, to release a particular tension point, around the spot, often spine or shoulders
Hacking or tapotement A percussive or chopping motion with the edges of both hands moving swiftly over the skin to deliver sharp taps to the body Used to stimulate the body and tone and strengthen the muscles
Vibration Pressing the hands down on to the back or limbs, and shaking them rapidly for a few seconds. Boosts circulation and increases the power of the muscles. Vibration is particularly helpful to people suffering from low-back pain.

Tips for getting the best from your massage experience:

  • Don’t eat a big meal beforehand
  • Drink plenty of water (before and after treatment to assist the process of flushing out toxins),
  • Before you go, spend some time thinking what areas of your body, or what conditions you would like the therapist to address.
  • Let the practitioner know whether you would like a light massage or a deep one with firm movements.
  • Better not to chat to the therapist; stay silent and allow yourself to be immersed in the experience to feel the full benefit.

Effects and Benefits of Swedish Massage

The skin, as the largest sensory organ of the body, has thousands of tiny receptors in the dermis (second layer of skin) which respond to stimuli such as heat, cold etc and send messages to the brain). When stroked or massaged these can trigger the release of endorphins, the natural pain-killers in the body, and induce a sensation of well-being.

Massage has the power to directly affect the body systems which govern blood pressure, breathing and digestion. And although not a cure for specific complaints, the feeling of comfort and relaxation resulting from massage can lower the amount of stress hormones (such as cortisol and norepinephrine) which may weaken the immune system.  It is also used to assist recovery from muscular strain by flushing the tissues of lactic acid, uric acid, and other metabolic waste products.

Many studies have been done into the effects and benefits of classic Swedish massage, and the results seem universally positive. Specific examples of the research include:

  • Trials at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London in 1995 showed massage to reduce anxiety and improve quality of life in cancer patients.
  • The Touch Research Institute in Miami has undertaken many studies on massage therapy in general and found that, for instance, asthmatic children breathe more easily, office workers had reduced stress-hormone levels after a 15-minute lunchtime massage.

And more general claims for the benefits of massage include:

  • General sensation of relaxation and a consequent reduction in anxiety
  • Improved circulation of the blood and improved lymphatic drainage
  • Reduction in muscle spasm, tension in the body and pain levels
  • Increased release of the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins
  • Drainage of accumulated fluid in the tissues causing reduction of swelling
  • Prompting a feeling of comfort and well-being through the sensation of human touch

Professional Bodies & Organisations

International Register of Massage Therapists (IRMT)

The IRMT are a professional association founded in 1978 by David Reade, who ran one of the first full-time Physical Therapy colleges in Britain. Now the IRMT provides courses for those pursuing a career in the Physical Therapy, and accredits qualification through the International Register of Massage Therapists Examination Board (IRMTEB). The IRMTEB was founded in 1979, and approved as an independent examining body by the London Boroughs in that year.

The General Council for Massage Therapies

The (GCMT) is the governing body for massage therapies and all bodyworks and soft tissue techniques in the UK. The GCMT is a non-profit making organisation initially established by the major professional associations in massage therapies (including the Sports Massage Council and the Association of Physical and Natural Therapists (APNT) with shared aims of raising public awareness and professional standards, and ‘To act as a unifying body by bringing together organisations engaged in representing or teaching massage therapies, all bodyworks and soft tissue techniques’.

Fascinating Facts

  • About 2,400 years ago the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates gave his approval for massage technique. He recommended ‘a scented bath and an oiled massage every day’ as the way to health. And he advised practitioners to add it to their skills. ‘The physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.’
  • They’re crazy about massage in the United States. According to the National Health Interview Survey of 2007, which included complementary and alternative therapies, an estimated 18 million adult Americans and 700,000 children had received massage therapy in the previous year for a variety of health-related purposes, including to relieve pain, rehabilitate sports injuries, reduce stress and depression, and promote wellbeing.
  • A 2008 review of 13 clinical trials found evidence that massage might be useful for chronic low-back pain. Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2007 by the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians recommend that physicians consider using certain complementary and alternative therapies, including massage, when patients with chronic low-back pain do not respond to conventional treatment.
  • There’s plenty of evidence of the physical benefits of massage, and there are also mental and emotional benefits associated with massage therapy which include:

    • Mental relaxation, switching off from daily routine
    • Improvement in length and quality of sleep
    • Relief of anxiety, stress, depression and irritation
    • Increased alertness and ability to concentrate
    • Improved sense of comfort and well-being

  • A study of more than 300 hospice patients at different sites with advanced cancer concluded that massage may help to relieve pain and improve mood for these patients. Swedish massage is now widely used in pain clinics and hospice settings.
  • Spas and Salons frequented by celebrities like to keep their customers’ confidentiality, but one spa in LA couldn’t resist name-dropping that before Oscar red-carpet appearances the likes of Renee Zellweger, Jessica Alba and Ellen Degeneres choose to chill out with a good old soothing massage – and possibly, a sea mineral scrub, tropical rain rinse, and custom-blended osmotic body mask, or perhaps, an African red tea self-heating body soufflé…
  • The word ‘massage’ comes from the French ‘friction of kneading’ (its first use has been traced to 1876), and the French verb masser, ‘to massage,’ possibly corrupted from Arabic massa ‘to touch, feel, handle’; if so, it was probably acquired during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt.
  • The term ‘Swedish Massage’ mostly used in England and Holland, may be something of a misnomer. Although pretty much every source attributes the technique to Swedish fencing master Per Henrik Ling, it seems that the term may be a misnomer for his ‘Swedish Movement System’.
  • The one who first adopted the French terms effleurage, frottage and so on was a Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909). Two academic physicians Emil Kleen and Richard Hael, who researched the origins of massage in depth are convinced that Mezger is the true founding father of Swedish or classic massage.