Holistic Health: The Basics of Swedish Massage
Making Massage Accessible
When the average person hears massage mentioned, the first images that usually come to his or her mind are of what we would call the Swedish modality: on a table, with oil or lotion for lubrication, professionally draped with a sheet so that only the body part being worked on is exposed, perhaps with a blanket for warmth. S/he might envision a 50-minute session filled with long, gliding strokes, soft music playing in the background, and an overall atmosphere of calm and relaxation. All this is true. However, most first-time clients do not know much, if any, of the history or technical aspects of Swedish massage.
The long, gliding strokes most commonly associated with this modality are called effleurage. They give continuity to the session; strokes toward the heart promote blood flow, strokes away from the heart are calming nerve strokes.
Petrissage, the second Swedish stroke, consists of kneading or compressing the tissue, and has numerous benefits, including increasing local circulation and the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the muscle, as well as softening adhesions and decreasing overall tension.
Friction strokes involve the use of fingers, palms, or a soft fist in small circular motions, breaking up local adhesions and scar tissue, stimulating local circulation, carrying away toxins and metabolic waste, and hydrating the tissues.
The next stroke, vibration, is a fine, tremulous movement, sinking into the tissue. This stimulates nerve activity and sometimes even internal organs, and adds variety to the work.
The final stroke is called tapotement, and utilizes a drumming or patting motion, either with fingertips, with a soft fist, the ulnar side of the hand, cupped hands, or even with a plucking motion. In addition to stimulating the nervous system, tapotement tones muscle and softens tissue, increasing blood flow to the area.
The terms effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement were coined by Johann Mezger, who is credited for bringing massage into the medical field, in the late 19th century. Swedish massage was fathered by Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish physiologist who combined movement and massage to promote overall wellness and health, and lived from 1776 to 1839, doing his work at the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics, which he founded. It was not until 1856 that two brothers, George and Charles Taylor, introduced Swedish massage to America, by writing a textbook on the subject. The 1980's began the rise of accredited massage schools, and by the 1990's it had become more accepted by the medical profession.
The overall benefits of massage have long been understated. They include relaxation and the relief of tension, in addition to improvement in muscle tone and circulation. Also, massage can help prevent or delay muscle atrophy from forced inactivity in the elderly or invalid.
Swedish massage can aid in lymphatic circulation, speeding up the elimination of toxins, and help the movement of waste in the intestines, reducing constipation and promoting regularity. There are also more immediate benefits, such as stretching muscles and connective tissue, increasing the range of motion of joints, reducing pain and inflammation, and preventing the formation of adhesions.
Emotionally, the physical touch involved in these sessions can help lower the sense of isolation a person might feel, increase their comfort level with their bodies, and over all give a person a sense of calmness and serenity, which is all too rare in our fast-paced society. Swedish massage is a wonderful tool to promote wellness and happiness, for any kind of person.
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