What is a Swedish Massage?

Enjoying The Most Popular Western Massage

Woman receiving back massage from a massage
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Swedish massage is the most common and best-known type of massage in the West. If it's your first time at the spa or you don't get massage often, Swedish massage is the best place to start. Swedish massage and other types of  therapeutic massage are performed by trained, licensed  massage therapists.

Swedish massage is the foundation for other types of Western massage, including sports massagedeep tissue massage and aromatherapy massage.

  It is based on the Western concepts of anatomy and physiology, as opposed to energy work on "meridiens" or sen lines in Asian massage systems. Most people get a 50 or 60-minute Swedish or deep tissue massage, but 75 or 90-minutes gives 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.

What Happens During A Swedish Massage

In all Swedish massage, the therapist lubricates the skin with massage oil and performs various massage strokes. 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.

Before the massage, the therapist should ask you about any injuries or other conditions that he or she should know about. Things you would want tell a therapist include areas of tightness or pain, allergies, and conditions like pregnancy.

You can also tell them up front if you have a preference for light or firm pressure. It's best not to get a massage if you are ill.

After the consultation, the therapist instructs you how to lie on the table -- face up or face down, and underneath the sheet or towel -- and then leaves the room. He or she will knock or ask if you are ready before entering.

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 he/she is working 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 works 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, he or she holds the sheet or towel up and looks away while you turn over onto your back and scoot down; then he or she quickly covers you again. The therapist then massages the front of each leg, both arms, and generally finishes with 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. Swedish massage usually includes some deeper work on areas of specific muscle tension, but if you truly want deeper, more intensive work and firmer pressure, book a deep tissue 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 massage 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.