Swedish Massage

What is Swedish Body Massage?


For thousands of years the benefits of massage have been recognised. Each generation experiments with and adds to the myriad methods which provide relaxation and relief from stiffness and pain. Certainly references to massage appear in ancient documents in India, China, Japan, the Middle East and ancient Rome and Greece. Physician Hippocrates defined it as “the art of rubbing”.

Massage has woven its way through modern history, too. Widely used in Europe in the Renaissance, it appears to have been popularised in the 1850s by two American physicians who had studied in Sweden. The technique is generally attributed (though probably wrongly) to a Swedish fencing master Per Henrik Ling, became less used in the mid-1900s when patients and practitioners favoured more scientific treatments. Then in the 1970s massage was rekindled in association with athletics and competitive sports.

Now there are something between 80 and 100 distinctive kinds of massage (one website lists 160). Of these the best known and most popular is what is generally known as Swedish Massage. The Swedish or Classic Massage technique is universally known: a full-body massage that uses a combination of long strokes, kneading motion and friction on the layers of muscle just beneath the skin. Rubbing the underlying layers of tissue generates friction which increases the blood flow to the area. This results in a sensation of warmth, wellbeing and relaxation which can alleviate a number of circulatory symptoms.

What to expect

On your first visit, the practitioner will ask you about any pre-existing conditions or injuries that he or she should know about. A massage is not advised if you have certain serious medical conditions, such as thrombosis or phlebitis (inflammation of the veins); you may ask your doctor and let the therapist know if you are concerned. And ensure that practitioner you’ve chosen is a member of, or is accredited by, an association or professional body.

Swedish Body Massage is very much a hands-on procedure, so be prepared to strip down to the level you are comfortable. When you lie on the couch or treatment table, you’ll be covered with a sheet or towel; only the part of you being massaged will be exposed, the rest is covered by a technique called ‘draping’. Some people are comfortable to be naked under the covering while being treated, others prefer to stay in their underwear; either is acceptable.

Using a light oil to help the gliding movements, the practitioner will begin to work over the whole body, using a variety of massaging techniques. Here are the basic ones are

Type of Massage The Method The Effect
Stroking or effleurage Smooth gentle action where the hands glide rhythmically over the body, following the direction of the muscle fibres. Used all over the body to relax tense muscles and improve circulation.
Kneading or petrissage Squeezing and releasing the flesh (like kneading bread dough) – rhythmically with alternate hands Stretches and relaxes muscles – used in particular in the fleshy parts of the body (thighs etc), used to break up tension and scar tissue in the muscles
Friction or frottage Deep even pressure applied with the thumbs, knuckles or elbow to a specific spot or in small circular motion around the area For deep penetration into the muscle tissue, to release a particular tension point, around the spot, often spine or shoulders
Hacking or tapotement A percussive or chopping motion with the edges of both hands moving swiftly over the skin to deliver sharp taps to the body Used to stimulate the body and tone and strengthen the muscles
Vibration Pressing the hands down on to the back or limbs, and shaking them rapidly for a few seconds. Boosts circulation and increases the power of the muscles. Vibration is particularly helpful to people suffering from low-back pain.

Tips for getting the best from your massage experience:

  • Don’t eat a big meal beforehand
  • Drink plenty of water (before and after treatment to assist the process of flushing out toxins),
  • Before you go, spend some time thinking what areas of your body, or what conditions you would like the therapist to address.
  • Let the practitioner know whether you would like a light massage or a deep one with firm movements.
  • Better not to chat to the therapist; stay silent and allow yourself to be immersed in the experience to feel the full benefit.

Effects and Benefits

The skin, as the largest sensory organ of the body, has thousands of tiny receptors in the dermis (second layer of skin) which respond to stimuli such as heat, cold etc and send messages to the brain). When stroked or massaged these can trigger the release of endorphins, the natural pain-killers in the body, and induce a sensation of well-being.

Massage has the power to directly affect the body systems which govern blood pressure, breathing and digestion. And although not a cure for specific complaints, the feeling of comfort and relaxation resulting from massage can lower the amount of stress hormones (such as cortisol and norepinephrine) which may weaken the immune system. It is also used to assist recovery from muscular strain by flushing the tissues of lactic acid, uric acid, and other metabolic waste products.

Many studies have been done into the effects and benefits of classic Swedish massage, and the results seem universally positive. Specific examples of the research include:

  • Trials at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London in 1995 showed massage to reduce anxiety and improve quality of life in cancer patients.
  • The Touch Research Institute in Miami has undertaken many studies on massage therapy in general and found that, for instance, asthmatic children breathe more easily, office workers had reduced stress-hormone levels after a 15-minute lunchtime massage.

And more general claims for the benefits of massage include:

  • General sensation of relaxation and a consequent reduction in anxiety
  • Improved circulation of the blood and improved lymphatic drainage
  • Reduction in muscle spasm, tension in the body and pain levels
  • Increased release of the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins,
  • Drainage of accumulated fluid in the tissues causing reduction of swelling.
  • Prompting a feeling of comfort and well-being through the sensation of human touch.

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