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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Massage

What is massage?

People have been practicing massage as a healing therapy for centuries. Massage is currently the most widely used muscular therapy, with an estimated 100,000 practitioners in the U.S. Today, the term "therapeutic massage" refers to a range of manual therapies involving the manipulation of the soft-tissue structures in the body. In most cases, massage relieves muscle tension, reduces stress, and evokes feelings of calmness. Varieties of massage range from gentle stroking and kneading of muscles and other soft tissues to deeper manual techniques. Some focus on one specific function of the body (see lymphatic massage below). Others, such as trigger point and myotherapy, seek to relieve muscle contraction in a target area. Most practitioners rely on a combination of techniques. Currently, few clinical trials examine the effects of massage. However, practitioners believe that the therapeutic benefits of massage are due, in part, to its ability to affect changes in the musculoskeletal, circulator-lymphatic, and nervous systems.

How to find a practitioner:

Certified massage therapists complete a training program of 500 or more hours, take national board exams, and are licensed or registered in many states. To find a massage therapist, contact the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201; 847-864-0123;


Reflexology is a form of massage performed on the feet, hands, or ears, which are believed to have reflex connections throughout the body. Using specialized thumb and finger techniques, the reflexologist applies manual pressure to these reflex points in an effort to return normal function to target organs and structures. Many massage therapists also receive training in this technique.

How to find a practitioner:

The American Reflexology Certification Board (ARCB) certifies reflexologists who undergo 100 hours of training and pass an exam. To find a qualified reflexologist, contact the ARCB, P.O. Box 620607, Littleton, CO 80162; 303-933-6921.

Lymphatic Massage

You use lymphatic massage to stimulate lymphatic circulation, which helps the body eliminate toxins. Lymph stagnation may cause swelling and pain. Although all types of massage stimulate lymph flow, Vodder Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), developed by Danish physical therapist Emil Vodder in France in the 1930s, focuses on draining excess lymph. In Europe, physicians frequently prescribe MLD for sprains, bruises, and muscular spasms caused by overuse or chronic tension. These physicians recommend it following certain surgeries to shrink swelling. Therapists generally use a very light pulsing touch along the lymph vessels.

How to find a practitioner:

Massage therapists and physical therapists with at least 500 hours of massage- or physical-therapy training can become certified in lymphatic massage by taking a 4-week training program. To find a therapist who practices lymphatic massage, contact North American Vodder Association of Lymphedema Therapists (NAVALT), P.O. Box 861, Chesterfield, OH 44026; 419-729-3258.

Asian Massage Methods (tui na and shiatsu)

The Asian healing arts have long considered massage an important part of their methods. Widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, tui na is a form of deep tissue massage and manipulation. Practitioners in China often prescribe tui na for arthritic and rheumatic pains, to activate circulation, to restore weak or damaged nerves, and to tone the spine and the acupuncture points (meridians) adjacent to it. Both tui na and shiatsu, a Japanese method that uses gentle finger and hand pressure to adjust the body's physical structure and energetic (meridian) balance, are believed to have therapeutic benefits for both localized areas and the whole body.

How to find a practitioner:

Contact the American Oriental Bodywork Therapy Association at 609-782-1616.

Rolfing (structural integration)

Rolfing, developed in the 1940s by biophysicist Ida Rolf, seeks to realign the body so that it conserves energy, releases tension, moves more easily, restructures itself, and functions better neurologically. Rolfers apply pressure to the fascia—connective tissues between layers of muscle—to stretch it, lengthen it, and make it more flexible. Rolfing generally requires a basic series of 10 sessions—usually one per week. Practitioners take 700 hours of graduate-level courses at the Rolf Institute to become certified.

How to find a practitioner:

To find a certified practitioner, contact The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, P.O. Box 1868, Boulder, CO 80302-1868; 800-530-8875 or 303-449-5903; or

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release is based on a whole-body approach; the ultimate objective is to help the patient achieve postural changes and optimal body alignment. Injuries to fascia, or connective tissue, in one area of the body can put tension on adjacent areas—even areas far from the site of the injury. Therapists trained in myofascial release apply gentle, sustained pressure and stretching to injured fascia. Once the therapist identifies the problem area, he or she gently stretches the tissue along the direction of the muscle fibers until he or she feels resistance. The therapist holds this position until the soft tissue releases and repeats this process until all tissues are fully extended.

How to find a practitioner:

To find a massage therapist that practices myofascial release in your area, contact the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201; 847-864-0123;

Trigger Point and Myotherapy

Trigger-point massage and myotherapy are pain-relief techniques for soothing muscle spasms and cramping. Therapists apply pressure to triĘger points—tender areas where muscles have been damaged—and thereby increase blood flow to these areas. Because muscle spasms reduce the blood supply to involved tissues, applying pressure to these trigger points restores this decreased blood supply and soothes the spasms.

How to find a practitioner:

To find a therapist that practices trigger-point massage and myotherapy, contact the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201; 847-864-0123;

Supporting Research

Field T, Grizzle N, Scafidi F, Abrams S, Richardson S. Massage therapy for infants of depressed mothers. Infant Behav Dev. 1996;19:109-114.

Field T, Ironson G, Scafidi F, et al. Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. Int J Neurosci. 1996;86(3-4):197-205.

Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, LaGreca A, Shaw K, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. Massage therapy lowers blood glucose levels in children with Diabetes Mellitus. Diabetes Spectrum. 1997;10:237-239.

Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Seligman S, et al. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis: benefits from massage therapy. J Pediatr Psychol. 1997;22(5):607-617.

Field T, Lasko D, Mundy P, et al. Brief report: autistic children's attentiveness and responsivity improve after touch therapy. J Autism Dev Disord. 1997;27(3):333-338.

Field T, Schanberg S, Kuhn C et al. Bulimic adolescents benefit from massage therapy. Adolescence. 1998;33(131):555-563.

Field TM, Quintino O, Hernandez-Reif M, Koslovsky G. Adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder benefit from massage therapy. Adolescence. 1998;33(129):103-108.

Greene E. Massage therapy. In: Novey DW, ed. Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:338-348.

Hamill OP, McBride DW Jr. Mechanoreceptive membrane channels. Am Sci. 1995;83(1):30-37.

Hernandez-Reif M, Field T, Krasnegor J, Martinez E, Schwartzman M, Mavunda K. Children with cystic fibrosis benefit from massage therapy. J Pediatr Psychol. 1999;24(2):175-181.

InfoTeam Inc. Chronic low-back pain: comparison of acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and self-care education [abstract]. Life Sciences & Biotechnology Update. May 2000. Full text available as Report No. L20000521 from InfoTeam Inc., P.O. Box 15640, Plantation, FL 33318-5640, phone (954) 473-9560.

Labrecque M, Eason E, Marcoux S, et al. Randomized controlled trial of prevention of perineal trauma by perineal massage during pregnancy. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1999:180(3 Pt1):593-600.

Payne J. The benefits of baby massage in the management and prevention of postnatal depression. J Chartered Physiother Womens Health. 1999;84:10-13.

Richards A. Hands on help. Nurs Times. 1998;94(32):69-72, 75.

Scafidi FA, Field T, Schanberg SM. Factors that predict which preterm infants benefit most from massage therapy. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 1993;14(3):176-180.

Schachner L, Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Duarte AM, Krasnegor J. Atopic dermatitis symptoms decreased in children following massage therapy. Pediatr Dermatol. 1998;15(5):390-395.

Smith MC, Stallings MA, Mariner S, Burrall M. Benefits of massage therapy for hospitalized patients: a descriptive and qualitative evaluation. Altern Ther Health Med. 1999;5(4):64-71.

Vickers A, Zollman C. Massage therapies. BMJ. 1999;319(7219):1254-1257.