The Swedish Massage: Full Body Therapy

Benefits, Techniques, and History of This Western Style of Massage

Woman receiving back massage from a massage
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The Swedish massage is the most common and best-known type of massage in the West, and the foundation for sports massagedeep tissue massagearomatherapy massage, and other popular Western-style massages.

Based on the Western concepts of anatomy and physiology—as opposed to energy work on "meridians" or sen lines that are the focus in Asian massage systems—therapists utilize this type of massage to stimulate circulation, flush the circulatory system, release tight muscles, restore range of motion, and to relieve pain.

If it's your first time at the spa or you don't get a massage often, a Swedish massage is a good fit for beginners. Most people get a 50- or 60-minute Swedish or deep tissue massage, but 75 or 90 minutes will give the therapist more time to work the muscle tissue and achieve results. A Swedish massage can be slow and gentle, or vigorous and bracing, depending on the therapist's personal style and what he or she is trying to achieve.  

If you want deeper work and can tolerate more pressure to get relief from chronic muscle pain, it's better to book a deep tissue massage, which is another form of Swedish massage. If you have pain, it will likely take a series of massages to get results. Swedish massage and other types of therapeutic massage are performed by trained, licensed massage therapists.

What Happens During a Swedish Massage

In all Swedish massage, the therapist lubricates the skin with massage oil and performs various massage strokes, including the basic techniques for a traditional Swedish massage: effleurage, petrissage, friction, tapotement, vibration/nerve strokes, and Swedish gymnastics.

These movements warm up the muscle tissue, releasing tension and gradually breaking up muscle "knots" or adhered tissues, called adhesions. Swedish massage promotes relaxation, among other health benefits, but before the massage, the therapist should ask you about any injuries or other conditions that he or she should know about.

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Things you would want tell a therapist include areas of tightness or pain, allergies, and conditions like pregnancy. You can also tell them upfront if you have a preference for light or firm pressure.

After the consultation, the therapist instructs you how to lie on the table—face up or face down and underneath the sheet or towel or not—and then leaves the room. He will knock or ask if you are ready before entering.

The Benefits of Getting a Swedish Massage

Even going to the massage therapist and getting a Swedish massage once will calm your nervous system and promote a sense of relaxation and well being, reducing anxiety and tension in the body, which has been known to help relieve depression.

Swedish massages improve blood circulation, which helps you feel more energetic by increasing the flow of nutrient-rich oxygen to the muscles in your body. Additionally, it stimulates the lymphatic system, which carries the body's waste products, meaning you'll process the good and the bad much quicker.

If you're experiencing muscle cramps and spasms, a Swedish massage with a focus on your problem areas can help relieve this pain. Massage therapy can also help with managing the pain from conditions such as arthritis and sciatica.

Massage is not a good idea if you have a fever, infections, inflammation, osteoporosis, and other medical conditions—at least not without consulting your doctor first—and it's best not to get a massage if you are ill. If you have any doubts about whether or not a massage would be right for you, speak to a medical professional before booking a Swedish massage.

The Nudity Factor

During a Swedish massage, you are generally nude underneath a towel or sheet. The therapist uncovers only the part of the body being worked on, a technique called draping. If the nudity gets you out of your comfort zone, you can keep your underwear on, and many newcomers do.

You usually start by laying face down with your head in a u-shaped face cradle so your spine stays neutral. The therapist generally starts by working your back, using various massage strokes that include effleurage, kneading, friction, stretching, and tapping.

When she's finished with the back, she works the back of each leg. When done with the back side, she holds the sheet or towel up and looks away while you turn over and scoot down, covers you again, and then massages the front of each leg, both arms, and then your neck and shoulders.

Some therapists work in a different order, and all have their own style and techniques. If you only have 50 minutes, you can also ask them to spend more time on a certain area. If the pressure is too light or too firm, you should speak up and ask the therapist to adjust it. If you want deeper work and can tolerate more pressure to get relief from chronic muscle pain, it's better to book a deep tissue massage, which is another form of Swedish massage.

The cost of a Swedish massage will vary, depending on whether you go to a day spa, resort spa, destination spa, a chain like Massage Envy or go to a massage therapist. Swedish massage pricing will also depend on what part of the country you live and how luxurious the spa is.

Why It's Called Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is based on the Western concepts of anatomy and physiology as opposed to energy work that is more common in Asian-style massage. Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838 - 1909) is credited as the man who adopted the French names to denote the basic strokes under which he systemized massage as we know it today.

In the early 19th century the Swedish physiologist, Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) at the University of Stockholm, developed a system called "Medical Gymnastics" which included movements performed by a therapist. These became the known as "Swedish Movements" in Europe and "the Swedish Movement Cure" when they came to the U.S. in 1858. 

According to Robert Noah Calvert, author of "The History of Massage," Mezger's system became confused with Ling's system, and because he came earlier, Ling received credit for the "Swedish Massage System." Today it is known as Swedish massage in America, and "classic massage" in Sweden!

How Swedish Massage Went "Light"

Swedish massage evolved in the first half of the 20th century to become a whole system of physiotherapy, including soft tissue manipulation, movements, hydrotherapy and electrotherapy by the 1930s, according to Patricia Benjamin, another massage historian. It fell out of favor as modern medicine, hospitals and medications moved to the forefront of our culture's thinking about health. At the same time "massage parlors" that were fronts for prostitution gave genuine practitioners an image problem.

 

Benjamin says that interest in massage was revived in the 1970s as part of the counter-culture movement. The Esalen Institute in California developed the "Esalen massage," often given by candlelight, with long flowing effleurage performed lightly. It was not necessarily intended for professionals, but to nurture the giving and receiving of touch. 

This method influenced Swedish massage, moving it toward a lighter relaxation massage. If you really want results, the thinking goes, you should book a deep tissue massage. Swedish and deep tissue massages are the most commonly requested type of massage at spas today. Before and during your Swedish massage session, communicate with your therapist so that your massage is customized to your specific needs.

Difference Between Swedish and Deep Tissue Massages

While the most commonly requested massage is the Swedish variety, deep tissue massages are best for small muscle injuries and chronic muscle problems, but that's not the only way these two versions of massage are different.

Deep tissue massage, as the name would imply, focuses on deeper tissue structures of muscles, and massage therapists apply deep tissue massage will apply a strong, constant pressure against the muscle until it pushes back and relaxes, providing relief to deep areas of tension in specific muscles.

Deep tissue massages are better than Swedish massages for treating sports injuries, soreness from poor posture (sitting at a desk all day), and chronic spasms, but Swedish massages are often more comprehensive and relaxing than deep tissue massages.