There are likely more than 20 different types of massage in the world, but if you were to break them down to the basics, there are probably just less than ten—all involve some form of physical touch. Nonetheless, the type of massage you receive depends on what your intentions are, your health status, and prior experience.
For many people, massage just feels good, and the demand for massage therapy seems to be increasing—at least in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that employment for massage therapy is expected to grow 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is an additional 46,500 jobs by the next decade.
Recognizing the different types of massage, including touch quality, purpose, history, and other little details, could make a big difference in your experience. Plus, scientific evidence about massage therapy, pain, and touch can help guide you to what massage can and cannot do.
Before you call to book an appointment, this list provides some common types that you would likely encounter.
Swedish massage is the “default” in most spas and private practices since many massage therapists in Western societies learn this technique in their early schooling.
This technique involves gliding strokes and gentle kneading for a full-body relaxing experience. The pressure can vary from skin-gliding light to firm and slow, often involving the entire body rather than just one body part.
Your massage therapist might use oil, lotion, or gel to reduce the friction during the massage, giving you that soothing sensation of pain relief.
Interestingly, despite that Swedish massage has Swedish roots, its founder Pehr Henrik Ling didn’t apply it much in his teachings when dealing with injuries. Instead, he emphasized exercise as a form of recovery rather than using massage.
Deep tissue massage
Many spas offer deep tissue massage as a secondary option to Swedish massage as part of their list of services. Contrary to the popular idea that deep tissue massage is “better” than Swedish or other types of massage to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness, deep tissue work can be painful and uncomfortable for some people if too much pressure is applied.
Your therapist might use their forearms, elbows, fist, fingers and thumbs, and even their palm to apply a sustained pressure over a sore spot.
In fact, deep tissue massage is an umbrella term that includes various types of massage from different cultures, including shiatsu, Thai, and even Swedish.
Also, the relief you may get from a deep tissue massage is likely from changes to your nervous and endocrine systems as well as the your expectations and prior experience with massage. Descending modulation is part of the explanation of why you may get pain relief.
So, if you have a positive experience with deep tissue massage, then you’ll likely have another such experience in your next session compared to someone with a not-so-good experience with deep tissue work.
Sports massage is a mixed bag of different techniques, such as effleurage, petrissage, and cross-fiber strokes, that are very similar to the ones found in Swedish massage.
Sports massage doesn’t necessarily involve the therapist applying bone-deep pressure to your muscles that make you hiss in pain.
While there is currently no consensus about what sports massage really means, most therapists agree that it involves more about the therapists’ knowledge of pain and injuries relating to athletes and how they communicate with them and their support team, such as their coach, family members, and teammates.
What do you do when you have a headache or an achy back and you don’t want to take medications? A good pregnancy massage (or prenatal massage) may help relieve some of the pains and anxiety of pregnancy.
Like sports massage, prenatal massage has more to do with understanding the nature of a woman’s pregnancy and the problems she may be facing during her pregnancy than doing a “special” technique.
Of course, the therapist should know how to drape, use various tools (e.g. pregnancy bolster, pregnancy pillows) to help make the client comfortable, and communicate with her during the session.
Reflexology is basically a foot massage that has a typical narrative of “points” or “zones” in the foot that somehow correspond to different internal organs (e.g. liver, stomach, spleen) or other parts of the body and face (e.g. jaw, temples, lower back).
By pressing upon these areas, proponents of reflexology claim that it can help reduce pain, “improve function,” or bring “balance” to the body. These narratives may vary among cultures that use foot massage as a way to alleviate pain and promote relaxation.
While there is no good-quality evidence to support these claims, most people would agree that getting your feet touched feels good, regardless of what you might believe.
Trigger point therapy
Trigger point therapy often consists of pushing, squeezing, or compressing over an area that feels tight or painful. The massage therapist would likely use their thumbs and fingers to perform such strokes in a repetitive way.
Trigger point therapy is based on the idea that there are “sore spots” or “trigger points” that are distributed throughout your body within your muscle tissues. However, the existence of such trigger points are highly debated, even among trigger point proponents, despite having more than 20 years of research.
While pressing directly into the muscle tissue through the skin can sometimes alleviate discomfort, the pain relief that you might get may have more to do with how your nervous system perceives the touch, your expectations, and factors other than the actual therapy itself.
Chair massage is the appetizer of the massage menu. It’s more accessible and affordable from some people, and it provides an important way for many massage therapists to gain exposure to new clients.
The therapist would likely use very little or no oil or lotion because chair massage is done with clothes on. They would also likely use a variety of techniques for your specific needs.
You can keep your clothes on, keep any messy oil off, and maybe even share the experience with some friends or coworkers.
You can fit it in on a lunch break or while waiting at an airport. If you’re new to massage therapy, a chair massage is an affordable introduction.
Lymphatic Drainage Massage (MLD)
Lymphatic drainage massage, or manual lymph drainage (MLD) is based on the idea that congested lymph nodes in an area of your body can be “cleared out” by performing a series of rhythmic, compressive strokes along lymph vessels.
There’s also some scientific support for using MLD to reduce edema for those with lymphedema and breast cancer survivors who had just gone through surgery, but as a stand-alone treatment, there’s no hard evidence to support that.
MLD practitioners claim that it can reduce edema, swelling, and/or inflammation from lymphatic disorders or trauma to the body. But what does this mean for you and your health goals? And does scientific evidence support these claims, including cellulite reduction and weight loss?
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for massage therapy after a setback from the early seasons of the pandemic in 2020. Some people who have been quarantined in their homes or are recovering from long COVID may be starving for human touch. Knowing the type of massage that you want can help you communicate with your practitioner and choose the best one for you.
A native of San Diego for nearly 40 years, Nick Ng is an editor of Massage & Fitness Magazine, an online publication for manual therapists and the public who want to explore the science behind touch, pain, and exercise, and how to apply that in their hands-on practice or daily lives.
An alumni from San Diego State University with a B.A. in Graphic Communications, Nick also completed his massage therapy training at International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego in 2014.
When he is not writing or reading, you would likely find him weightlifting at the gym, salsa dancing, or exploring new areas to walk and eat around Southern California.