Massage Therapy Styles and Health Benefits

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on August 02, 2023
9 min read

Massage therapy is a form of manual therapy that involves moving soft tissues in the body to reduce stress, ease muscle tension, and promote relaxation and overall well-being. It is a hands-on technique performed by trained massage therapists.

Massage has been practiced for thousands of years. Today, if you need a massage, you can choose from about 80 massage therapy styles with a wide variety of pressures, movements, and techniques. These all involve pressing, rubbing, or manipulating muscles and other soft tissues with hands and fingers. Sometimes, even forearms, elbows, or feet are used.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, approximately 21% of Americans had some form of massage in 2020. And they have a wide range of reasons for doing so. More and more people, especially baby boomers, recognize the health benefits of massage. They choose among many massage styles to get relief from symptoms or heal injuries, help with certain health conditions, and promote overall wellness.

Here is some information you can use to help you decide what types of massage will work best for you.

You may have noticed that different massage styles are popular at different times. And you may have wondered whether each was just part of a passing fad or the latest, greatest massage technique. An even more important question is how to tell whether the latest style will actually help you.

Styles used in massage therapy range from long, smooth strokes to short, percussive strokes. Some massage therapists use oils and lotions, others do not. Most massage therapists have clients unclothe for a massage, but some do not. A massage can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours.

Before you can decide which massage style is best for you, you need to ask yourself a question. Do you simply want a massage for relaxation and stress control? Or do you need symptom relief or help with a certain health condition? Before booking a massage, let the therapist know what you're looking for and ask which style the therapist uses. Many use more than one style. The therapist may customize your massage, depending on your age, condition, or any special needs or goals you have.

What follows is a list of some of the more popular massage therapy styles.

Swedish massage

The most common type of massage is Swedish massage therapy. It involves soft, long, kneading strokes, as well as light, rhythmic, tapping strokes, on topmost layers of muscles. This is also combined with the movement of joints. By relieving muscle tension, Swedish therapy can be both relaxing and energizing. And it may even help after an injury.

Four common strokes of Swedish massage are:

  • Effleurage: a smooth, gliding stroke used to relax soft tissue
  • Petrissage: the squeezing, rolling, or kneading that follows effleurage
  • Friction: deep, circular movements that cause layers of tissue to rub against each other, helping to increase blood flow and break down scar tissue
  • Tapotement: a short, alternating tap done with cupped hands, fingers, or the edge of the hand

Deep tissue massage

Deep tissue massage is best for giving attention to certain painful, stiff "trouble spots" in your body. The massage therapist uses slow, deliberate strokes that focus pressure on layers of muscles, tendons, or other tissues deep under your skin. Though less rhythmic than other types of massage, deep tissue massage may be therapeutic, relieving chronic patterns of tension and helping with muscle injuries, such as back sprains.

Sports massage

Developed to help with muscle systems used for a particular sport, sports massage uses a variety of approaches to help athletes in trainingbefore, during, or after sports events. You might use it to promote flexibility and help prevent injuries. It may also help relieve muscle strains and speed up healing after a sports injury.

Chair massage

Have you ever gone to a county fair, music festival, or conference and envied other people getting chair massages? Or have you ever passed by the chair massage section in an airport? Or maybe you're lucky enough to work at a company that offers 15- to 20-minute massages as a regular benefit. Chair massages are done while you're seated fully clothed in a portable, specially designed chair. They usually involve a massage of your neck, shoulders, back, arms, and hands.

Shiatsu massage

In Japanese, shiatsu means finger pressure. For shiatsu massage, the therapist uses varied, rhythmic pressure on certain precise points of the body. These points are called acupressure points, and they are believed to be important for the flow of the body's vital energy, called chi. Proponents say shiatsu massage can help relieve blockages at these acupressure points.

Thai massage

During a Thai massage, the therapist uses their body to move the client into a variety of positions. This type of massage includes compression of muscles, mobilization of joints, and acupressure.

Lymphatic drainage massage

A lymphatic drainage massage is a gentle massage of your tissues designed to help increase the circulation of lymph fluids in your body. Lymph is a protein-rich fluid that moves throughout your body in lymph vessels. It scoops up things like bacteria, viruses, and waste and carries them to your lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes then filter the fluid to get the impurities out of your body. The massage is usually done with light pressure with gentle, long strokes along the skin to increase the movement of lymph through your system.

Hot stone massage

For this kind of massage, the therapist places warmed stones on certain areas of the body, such as acupressure points. The stones may be used as massage tools or temporarily left in place. Used along with other massage techniques, hot stones can be quite soothing and relaxing as they transmit heat deep into the body.


Reflexology 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. The massage, then, is expected to promote health and well-being.

Pregnancy massage

During pregnancy, your body goes through major changes. Pregnancy massage can help with these changes by reducing stress, decreasing arm and leg swelling, and relieving muscle and joint pain. Massage may be particularly helpful during a time when medication and other medical options may be more limited. Using specially designed massage pillows, the massage therapist will help you get into a comfortable position for this type of massage.

Cranial sacral massage

This practice is mostly used to treat headaches, migraines, neck and back pain, stress-related disorders, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, and certain neurological conditions. During a cranial sacral massage session, a trained therapist uses light touch and subtle movements to assess and address any imbalances or restrictions in the craniosacral system. The craniosacral system includes the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.

Trigger point massage

During a trigger point massage session, a trained therapist applies pressure directly to the identified trigger points to help release tension and get rid of pain. The pressure can vary in intensity, and the therapist may use their fingers, knuckles, elbows, or other tools to target the specific areas effectively. The trigger point massage aims to encourage the release of the contracted muscle fibers, improve blood flow to the affected area, and promote relaxation of the muscles.

Myofascial release

Your fascia is a connected web of tissues that supports your muscles, bones, organs, and other structures within the body. During a myofascial release session, a trained therapist uses gentle pressure on specific areas of the body to release tightness within the fascial system. The therapist may use their hands, fingers, elbows, or specialized tools to apply pressure and stretch the fascia in a way that encourages it to return to a more relaxed state.

Many types of massage offer benefits beyond simple relaxation. Here are just a few of the health problems that may benefit from massage. However, ask your doctor before using massage for any health condition.

Massage therapy and pain

  • Back pain. More than one study has shown the effectiveness of massage therapy for back pain. 
  • Headache. Another type of pain, headache, also responds to massage therapy. Some studies suggest that massage therapy can improve sleep and reduce the number of migraines a person has.
  • Osteoarthritis. In the first clinical trial looking at the effectiveness of Swedish massage for kneeosteoarthritis, participants who received a one-hour massage either one or two times a week had improvements in pain, stiffness, and function. The control group had no such change.
  • Fibromyalgia. Studies show that over a course of 5 weeks, massage therapy can improve symptoms such as pain, anxiety, and depression.

Massage therapy and cancer

  • Cancer. Massage therapy is used as a complement to traditional, Western medicine and can promote relaxation and reduce cancer symptoms or side effects of treatment. It may help reduce pain, swelling, fatigue, nausea, or depression and improve the function of your immune system. However, there are specific areas that a massage therapist should avoid in a cancer patient, as well as times when massage should be avoided altogether. Talk to your doctor before getting massage therapy if you have cancer.

Massage therapy and HIV/AIDS

  • HIV/AIDS. Research suggests that massage therapy may help improve the quality of life and treat the anxiety and depression that people with HIV or AIDS go through.

Massage therapy and mental health 

  • Depression. A review of 17 clinical trials found that massage therapy may help reduce depression. But for generalized anxiety disorder, it was no more effective than providing a calming environment and deep breathing exercises.

There seems to be a low amount of risk associated with massage therapy. But there have been rare reports of serious side effects, such as a nerve injury, blood clot, or bone fracture. The reported cases of side effects are sometimes associated with more intensive types such as deep tissue massage, or they involve patients who might be at increased risk of injury, such as older people.

When looking for a massage therapist, treat it as looking for any other type of medical professional. First, define your goals. Determine what type of massage you're looking for so you can narrow down your search. Ask for recommendations from friends and family. If your inner circle doesn't have a trusted massage therapist they rely on, expand your search online. Check online directories that include reviews. Once you've set your sights on a few professionals, research their credentials. Make sure they are licensed and registered to work in your area. Then, find out what they charge and if that is in your budget. After you have verified that this person seems like a good fit and works in an area that is within a reasonable distance from you, set up a consultation so you can meet them and discuss your concerns. After you have met them, trust your gut on whether this person seems like someone you can trust with your well-being.

Massage therapy is a type of treatment that involves moving the soft tissues in your body to achieve relaxation and overall well-being. There are many types of massage therapy that are done by licensed professionals ranging from hot stone massages to specialty treatments for when you're pregnant. Massage therapy is proven to improve several health conditions. If you think massage therapy is right for you, look into finding the right therapist who specializes in the treatment that will be best for you.

  • What is the difference between massage therapy and therapeutic massage?

Massage therapy includes a wide range of massages aimed at relaxation and general well-being, while therapeutic massage refers to massage sessions that are specifically designed to address and improve specific health conditions or issues.

  • What is the difference between bodywork and massage therapy?

    Massage therapy is a specific form of bodywork that focuses on manipulating soft tissues through various massage techniques. Bodywork is a more general term that includes a wider range of therapeutic practices, of which massage therapy is one of the many approaches.

  • What is the average cost of massage therapy?

The average cost of massage therapy varies depending on your location, the setting, and the type of therapy, but the national average cost is $60 per hour.

  • What is the difference between medical massage and massage therapy?

Massage therapy is a more general practice focused on relaxation and overall well-being. On the other hand, medical massage is a targeted, outcome-based approach designed to address specific health conditions and injuries under the guidance of health care professionals.

  • Is massage therapy covered by insurance?

Massage therapy can sometimes be covered by insurance, particularly if it is prescribed by a doctor.