Massage is an ancient medical treatment. Once pushed out of favor by social mores and biotechnology, massage therapy is now regarded as a major healing force.

Massage therapy is the systematic, mechanized stimulation or manipulation of soft tissues and muscles by the rhythmical application of fixed or movable pressure. Spas worldwide offer a variety of therapeutic massages that address specific problems or goals. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there are more than 80 types of massage therapy.

History of Massage Therapy

Therapeutic massage is one of the oldest forms of medical treatment. Historians suspect massage evolved out of the natural inclination to rub sore body parts. The oldest existing medical book, the Nei Ching, from 2598 B.C. mentions massage. Hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt and India also depict massage therapies.

Massage's Fall Into Disfavor

In Western civilization, massage fell into disfavor from the 5th century through the Renaissance, because the Church considered massage a form of pleasure. It was eventually accepted by Western medicine in 1819 when the physician Piorry analyzed the physiologic effects of massage. The French publication in 1863 of Du Massage helped matters by describing the effects of each massage technique on specific bodily systems.

Massage Therapies

Once massage had gained acceptance by physicians, various techniques of massage therapy were developed. The goals of massage therapy are to help the body heal itself and to increase health and well-being. Massage helps rid the body of waste products, it improves circulation, and it helps nourish vital organs.

One of the earliest therapies, the Swedish massage, which is still used today, combines effleurage, petrissage, percussion taps, vibration and friction. Here, the therapist uses long strokes, kneading, and friction on muscles while moving the joints to aid flexibility. The success of the Swedish massage led to the development of mechanical massage devices, such as pneumatic compression devices. Other common massage therapies include deep tissue massage; transverse or cross-fiber friction massage; myofascial release; soft tissue mobilization; neuromuscular massage, trigger point massage, and myotherapy; and sports massage.

Massage therapy may be also combined with various bodyworks systems such as Rolfing and Piliates. Forms of Eastern massage, which are also very beneficial, include acupressure and shiatsu. Cross-cultural massage employs biofields or bioenergetic fields and includes magnetic healing, craniosacral therapy, and Reiki.

Introduction in the United States

In the United States, modern massage therapy was introduced after the Civil War when two Swedish immigrants opened the first massage therapy clinics, the Posse Institute in Boston and the Swedish Health Institute in Washington D.C. American physicians often prescribed massage therapy until the early 1900s when advancements in medical technology led to increased pharmaceutical therapies. As a consequence, massage therapy became sanctioned into the realm of alternative medicine until recent years.

With increased knowledge of the physiological benefits of massage and touch therapy, especially to athletes, massage therapy has wended its way back into the heart of mainstream medicine. Many hospitals employ massage therapists, who treat both inpatients and outpatients. And an increasing number of insurance companies, recognizing the benefits of both preventive and non-surgical therapies, are covering prescribed massage therapy sessions.

Physician Referrals

Today, massage therapy is rated as one of the three complementary and alternative treatment modalities with the highest rate of physician referral. Massage therapy is commonly prescribed for patients with back problems, neurologic and neurodegenerative disorders, stroke rehabilitation, insomnia, chronic pain, and arthritic conditions.

Massage Therapists

By the end of 2004, 33 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws regulating massage therapy, for example, requiring that massage therapists graduate from an approved school of training or program and pass the national certification examination in their field.


  • Massage Therapy as CAM from the National Institutes of Health
  • Stanley Wainapel and Avital Fast, Alternative Medicine and Rehabilitation: A Guide for Practitioners, Demos Medical Publishing, 2003.

The copyright of the article Massage Therapy as Medicine iSpas is owned by Elaine Moore.