Swedish massage, also referred to as the “Western” or “Classic” style of massage, is a systematic approach of manual manipulations applied to the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (referred to collectively as the soft tissues). It is perhaps the most widely recognized and commonly used system of manual massage technique. Many massage schools in the United States base their curriculum in Swedish Massage techniques which also serves as the foundation for many of the massage techniques that have emerged over the decades.
An oil, lotion, or cream may be used to allow your muscles to be manipulated without causing friction to the skin. The intensity of manipulations can vary from light to vigorous and can be adjusted to each clients’ individual preference. Each massage stroke builds upon the effects of the previous stroke to help increase circulation, reduce muscle spasm, alleviate muscular pain and joint stiffness. Swedish Massage also has a calming effect on the nervous system and can relieve stress and anxiety. Assisted joint movements may also be incorporated into a client’s treatment when indicated. They are gentle in nature and are intended to take a joint through its range of motion providing a pleasant stretch.
The 5 primary manipulations of Swedish Massage: Effleurage, Petrissage, Friction, Tapotement, Vibration
Effleurage is a gliding/sliding type of manipulation applied with an oil or lotion in which the practitioner traces the muscles of the body with long strokes of light or deep pressure according to the client’s preference. The purpose of effleurage is to accustom the client to the touch of the therapist. It also helps the practitioner assess the state of the soft tissues as they are prepared for further treatment.
Petrissage is a kneading manipulation with many variations. Generally speaking, it involves a combination of lifting, rolling, and squeezing the soft tissues under or between the hands. The purpose of petrissage is to mobilize and differentiate tissues.
Friction massage technique is a continuous sliding motion or a group of alternating circular motions intended to cause layers of tissue to rub and break down scar tissue and adhesion’s which can restrict movement. It is typically coupled with rehabilitative work although it also has a modified use for wellness based massage treatments.
Tapotement (striking) is a rhythmic tapping or percussive movement. It is stimulating to the nervous system and has an invigorating effect. When applied to weak and inhibited muscles, tapotement techniques can help create tone in these tissues.
Vibration is a technique in which the massage practitioner gently shakes or trembles the flesh with the hand or fingertips, then moves on to another spot and repeats this stroke. Vibration may assist in reducing muscle spasm. Electric vibration devices can also be used in treatment sessions.
What to expect
To prepare for their massage, after the massage therapist leaves the room, the client is asked to undress only to their level of comfort though it is suggested to leave your bottom underwear on. The client lies on the massage table underneath a drape which provides warmth, privacy, and to maintain professional standards. During the massage, only the part of the body being treated will be exposed. The breasts and genitals will never be exposed or touched and the buttocks (gluteal muscles) will never be fully exposed. Clients are not required to disrobe for massage treatments as you can receive a great massage session and achieve your wellness goals fully clothed using a modified approach.
A Swedish Massage session can be applied to all the major muscle groups and joint structures of the body – i.e. the head, neck, shoulders, back, arms, hands, hips, thighs, legs, and feet. If you prefer that certain areas not receive massage, just let your massage therapist know before your session begins. Another option is to focus your session only on specific muscle groups. For example, a massage applied only to the neck, shoulders, and back. A runner may prefer a massage focus on the thighs, legs, feet, neck, and shoulders with some passive stretching to follow. In the end, the massage treatment can always be adjusted to reflect your wellness goals.
Communication with your massage therapist is encouraged to help establish clear goals and expectations for each session. Clients are also encouraged to give feedback during the session especially as it pertains to comfort (e.g. massage pressure too light or hard, music volume, room temperature, etc).
Historical note on Swedish Massage:
Swedish Massage, as we know it today, did not originate in Sweden and so the term has some historical confusion behind it. From an article published by the late founder and CEO of Massage Magazine Robert Noah Calvert:
Swedish massage did not originate in Sweden, nor was it created by a Swede. Also, in Sweden there is no “Swedish massage”; instead, massage is referred to almost universally as “Classic Massage.” And in most of Europe the term Classic Massage is much more prevalent than Swedish Massage. But in America, the term Classic Massage is used very little, while Swedish Massage is considered the classic and most basic of all massage methods. And so the term “Swedish Massage” is a misnomer in a number of ways.
I don’t know of a massage textbook written during the last 100 years that does not attribute Swedish massage to Peter Henry Ling (1776-1837), a Swede. Setting aside the argument that Swedish Massage is a misnomer and would be more historically correct if it were called Classic Massage, Peter Ling was not the creator of Swedish Massage. This may come as a shock to many readers, but it is absolutely true. Peter Ling is not the “father of Swedish massage,” because Swedish massage was not a part of Ling’s Swedish Gymnastic Movements nor the curriculum of the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute founded by Ling in 1813.
If you’re curious about this history, you can read the rest by clicking here – its a short but interesting read. The material for Calvert’s article came from his book, The History of Massage: An Illustrated Survey from around the World published in February 2002 by Healing Arts Press.
Mitchell Diaz has been a practicing massage therapist since 2004.
Disclaimer: Massage therapy works great as a prevention strategy and can remedy many aches, pains, and stresses. However, it is no panacea and not an alternative for medical care when needed.