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Joseph H Watts, LMT

A lot of misinformation gets passed around when it comes to massage. Let’s embark on a journey of discovery and clarification. In the coming weeks, I will explain the benefits and uses of the different types of massage. Massage modalities are seemingly infinite, so in these next handful of posts I will stick with the most common forms we typically see in our culture. Today, I’ll focus on Swedish massage: what it is, what it’s great for, what it’s “ok” for, and what it isn’t meant to do (or when it isn’t the best choice). Let’s dive in!

What we know today as Swedish Massage was developed by a Swedish(duh!) man named Per Henrik Ling. Ling, a physiologist and fencing master developed what he termed Medical Gymnastics. These were a series of movements and tapping that he claimed healed his own injured elbows. Later, the movements performed by a therapist were termed Swedish Movements and then further Swedish Healing Movements when they were brought to the United States. This was a good move, because (let’s be honest) Medical Gymnastics is a horrible name!

Now that we have had that (extremely) brief history, we can get to the nuts and bolts. What is Swedish Massage and do I really want that? To start, modern Swedish Massage is also often called Spa Massage or more derogatively “fluff and buff.” I despise that latter term, although, earlier in my tenure I was myself ignorant about this very appropriate and wonderful form of manual healing. Most massage therapy offices or spa’s offer Swedish Massage, as it is the most commonly used form of massage in the United States. Swedish Massage is often performed with the recipient nude or mostly so, and draped with a sheet or towel. It uses a combination of long gliding strokes, compressive strokes, tapping or chopping, friction, and kneading. Usually, these are applied with oil or lotion. The strokes tend toward the heart. The pressure should be light to medium and should never cause pain.

What are the benefits of Swedish Massage? This is where the rubber meets the road. In my opinion the main reason to get a Swedish Massage is for its benefit to overall health. This modality is wonderful for engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. Let me take a moment to explain. Our sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” mechanism. It is great for stressful times and survival. Unfortunately, cultural, societal, and economic expectations in developed countries like the US tend to keep our fight-or-flight activated almost permanently. It is only supposed to be activated in short periods. When we are in this sympathetic nervous system we produce cortisol. Too much cortisol (in short) causes stress to the heart and could lead to heart failure. Also, in sympathetic mode, our adrenal glands work overtime. This stressful mode of operation will eventually lead to adrenal failure, which is awful. There are many other side effects, such as poor digestion and weight gain. Swedish Massage helps activate parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of “fight or flight.” It flushes cortisol out of our systems, shuts off adrenal overload, helps digest food, etc, etc. In my opinion this is the greatest reason to receive regular Swedish Massage.

However, there are other beneficial effects. These include general muscle relaxation, better body awareness, increased blood and lymph flow, and better muscle tone. There are also benefits in which Swedish Massage is “ok” at achieving—results it can accomplish, however, maybe not as well as other types of body work. These are general pain reduction, some increased range of motion and increased muscle tone. With all of these benefits, it is a great modality.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what Swedish Massage is not good at achieving. If you experience extreme limits of range of motion, chronic pain(caused by alignment problems), many specific structural function issues, complicated soft tissue pain, energy blockages, and/or a host of specific ailments, there are better treatments. I have heard of many people getting a Swedish Massage and complaining that their pain issue was not treated or it didn’t help. That is not the fault of Swedish Massage; it was just the wrong modality for the outcome they wanted.

Subsequent articles we will discuss Deep Tissues, a myriad of Medical Massage modalities, general energy work, Thai massage, and a few others you may not have heard of. Join me as we continue this journey into massage modalities!