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Massage is a general term for pressing, rubbing and manipulating the muscular structure and soft tissue of the body. It has a therapeutic effect on the body by acting on the muscular, nervous and circulatory systems. This section provides information about what massage is – including its history, how it works, as well as how it’s practiced.

There are many different styles of massage, depending on a person’s needs and physical condition. Whether it’s Swedish massage, deep tissue massage or reflexology that you’re interested it, the Types of Massage page will guide through the most common forms.

While much of the scientific research on the benefits and risks of massage therapy is preliminary, this section includes a dedicated page that covers what massage can help with, as well under which circumstances it should be avoided.

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Man receiving massage from womanMassage is a general term for pressing, rubbing and manipulating the muscular structure and soft tissue of the body for the purpose of optimising health. It may range from light stroking to deep pressure. Massage therapists typically use their hands and fingers for massage, but may also use other parts of the body such as forearms, elbows and even feet.

Massage therapy treatment has a therapeutic effect on the body by acting on the muscular, nervous and circulatory systems. Through the use of massage therapy, physical function can be developed, maintained and improved; and physical dysfunction and pain can be relieved or prevented. Massage is increasingly being used to treat mental health problems as well, such as anxiety and depression. For more information about the physical and mental health benefits as well as risks, see Massage Benefits and Risks.

Massage therapy dates back thousands of years with references to massage appearing in ancient writings from China, Japan, India, and Egypt. There are many different types of massage, depending on your needs and physical condition.

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Woman Receiving a Foot MassageThere are many different types of massage. To help you decide which style is right for you, here is a quick guide to the most common types:

  • Swedish massage: This is the most widely practiced form of massage. Swedish massage uses long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration and tapping to help relax and energise you. If you've never had a massage before, this gentle form is a good one to try first.
  • Deep tissue massage: Deep tissue massage uses slower, more-forceful strokes to target the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It can ease chronically tight or painful muscles, repetitive strain, postural problems, or recovery from injury. People often feel sore for one to two days after deep tissue massage.
  • Sports massage: Sports massage combines techniques of swedish massage and deep tissue massage to release chronic muscle tension. It is geared toward people involved in sport activities to help prevent or treat injuries.
  • Trigger point massage: This massage searches out and deactivates areas of tight muscle fibers that can form in your muscles after injuries or overuse. These extremely tender points (trigger points) are painful when pressed, and may also refer pain to other parts of the body.
  • Aromatherapy massage: Massage is sometimes done using essential oils as a form of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy massage is particularly suited to stress-related conditions or conditions with an emotional component.
  • Hot stone massage: Hot stone massage is a technique where heated, smooth stones are placed on certain points on the body to warm and loosen tight muscles and balance energy centres in the body.
  • Pregnancy massage: Also known as prenatal massage, this type of massage helps ease the discomforts of pregnancy by reducing stress, decreasing arm and leg swelling, and relieving muscle and joint pain.
  • Reflexology: Reflexology is done to promote health and wellbeing. It uses hand, thumb, and finger techniques to stimulate certain areas of the feet. These areas are believed to correspond to different parts of the body, including the organs.
  • Thai Massage: During a thai massage, the therapist uses his or her body to move you into a variety of positions. This type of massage includes compression of muscles, mobilisation of joints, and acupressure.
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Couple Massage for RelaxationWhile often preliminary or conflicting, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that there is scientific evidence that massage can help with back pain and may improve quality of life for people with depression, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. For this reason it's increasingly being offered alongside standard treatment for a wide range of medical conditions and situations.

While more research is needed, Mayo Clinic offer the following list of conditions that massage may also be beneficial for:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Digestive disorders
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia related to stress
  • Myofascial pain syndrome
  • Paresthesias and nerve pain
  • Soft tissue strains or injuries
  • Sports injuries
  • Temporomandibular joint pain

Despite its benefits, speak to your doctor first before trying massage and be sure to follow any standard treatment plans you have.

Risks of massage

Massage therapy appears to have few risks when performed by a trained practitioner. However, people with certain health conditions should take precautions:

  • In some cases, pregnant women should avoid massage therapy. Talk with your health care provider before getting a massage if you are pregnant.
  • Strong forms of massage should be avoided by people with conditions such as bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts, and by people taking blood thinning medication.
  • Massage should not be done in any potentially weak area of the skin, such as burns, and open or healing wounds.
  • Deep or intense pressure should not be used over an area of the body where there is a tumour or cancer, unless approved by your health care provider.
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