Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of complementary medicine

Massage therapies

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 06 November 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1254
  1. Andrew Vickers,
  2. Catherine Zollman

    Therapeutic massage is the manipulation of the soft tissue of whole body areas to bring about generalised improvements in health, such as relaxation or improved sleep, or specific physical benefits, such as relief of muscular aches and pains.

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    A typical massage treatment session


    Almost all cultures have developed systems of therapeutic massage. Massage techniques play an important part in traditional Chinese and Indian medical care. European massage was systematised in the early 18th century by Per Hendrik Ling, who developed what is now known as Swedish massage.

    Ling believed that vigorous massage could bring about healing by improving the circulation of the blood and lymph. In the past 20-30 years complementary therapists have adapted Swedish massage so as to place greater emphasis on the psychological and spiritual aspects of treatment. Benefits of massage are now described more in terms such as “calmness” or “wholeness” than in terms of loosening stiff joints or improving blood flow. In contrast to the vigorous and standardised treatment recommended by Ling, current massage techniques are more gentle, calming, flowing, and intuitive.

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    Examples of other predominantly touch based therapies

    Several techniques derive from traditions separate from European massage. In reflexology, areas of the foot are believed to correspond to the organs or structures of the body. Damage or disease in an organ is reflected in the corresponding region, or “reflex zone,” of the foot. When this is palpated the patient is said to experience pain or pricking, no matter how gently pressure is applied. Reflexology treatment consists of massage of the disordered reflex zones.

    In aromatherapy, oils derived from plants (“essential oils”) are added to a base massage oil, which acts as a lubricant during treatment. Although often used purely for their smell, the oils are claimed to have a wide range of medicinal properties, including …

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