The week of Oct. 21 was National Massage Awareness Week, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to explain the differences between three of the best known types of massages.

Swedish Massage

Perhaps the most well-known type of massage is Swedish massage – also commonly known as relaxation massage, because of the slow, gentle or vigorous strokes (consisting of effleurage, petrissage, vibration, friction, and tapotement*) and passive stretches applied to unwind the body. Active stretches can also be utilized, but that rarely occurs.

A Swedish massage typically addresses the full body with a sequence of strokes that is coherent and flowing, and pressure tends to be on the lighter side. Theoretically, Swedish massage is intended to be utilized for muscle ‘knots’, but it is not as effective at releasing e.g., trigger points as other techniques. However, it addresses blood and lymph circulation and relaxes superficial muscles and is therefore beneficial if you need to de-stress.

Deep Tissue Massage

Deep Tissue massage is contrary to popular belief not just a Swedish type massage where the massage therapist applies harder pressure. Instead deep tissue massage is accomplished by working through layers of muscle and connective tissue allowing the massage therapist to release adhesions (muscles adhere to e.g., one another or to bone due to the physiological reaction of minor tears) and tense muscles in the deeper tissues, which can produce changes in posture and movement.

Unfortunately, if ‘deep tissue massage’ is of the Swedish-type-massage-with-firmer-pressure kind, it rarely addresses the deeper tissues in the intended way because the superficial tissues often guard the access and secondly because the flow of strokes doesn’t necessarily allow the massage therapist to be specific enough to make a significant change.

Sports Massage

Sports massage incorporates techniques from both Swedish and Deep Tissue depending on whether the purpose is pre- or post-event or maintenance. It is geared toward athletes and weekend warriors and the stresses their sports place on their body. The main purposes are relieving muscle soreness, promoting quick recovery from muscle exertion, and restoring and maintaining range of motion, so all joints work optimally and symmetrically to minimize the risk of injury.

Sports massage is a compilation of different techniques (such as friction, compression, trigger point release, muscle energy technique, pin & stretch, and PNF stretching**) and typically addresses only parts of the body during a session, because the focus is on a specific outcome such as restoring range of motion of the shoulder or reducing pain in the hip. The causes of pain, tightness, or reduced range of motion can be multiple and dependent on the type of sport the client is doing.

Therefore, familiarity with the physical demands the sport poses, a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology as well as a thorough understanding of fascial lines and trigger point patterns is imperative for the outcome of treatment. As the underlying goal of sports massage is to reduce the risk of injury an added component is educating the client on what can be done to maintain results outside of the massage session. This typically involves foam-rolling, stretching and strengthening exercises that re-balance muscle groups and aid in restoring functional movement.

So, when should you choose what? Well, easy guidelines are: if you are stressed or looking to pamper yourself, and aren’t looking for injury prevention or treatment, then a Swedish massage will be your best choice. And if you are bothered by problems like tension headache or upper back pain from slouching over your computer, then a deep tissue massage will do you good. However, if you’re exposing your body to a lot of physical demands and want to avoid or can actually feel that it is taking a toll on your body, then you should choose sports massage.

* effleurage = superficial gliding strokes; petrissage = kneading strokes; vibration = continuous shaking movement; friction = moving superficial layers of muscle against the deeper tissues; and tapotement =tapping, slapping, hacking, cupping, and beating

** compression = rhythmic pressing movements directed into the muscle; trigger point release =digital pressure or friction directly into a trigger point; muscle energy technique = soft tissue mobilization involving a client contracting isolated muscles against a counterforce provided by the therapist; pin & stretch = soft tissue mobilization involving the therapist pinning down the muscle and passively (or client actively) stretches the muscle; and PNF stretching = stretching based on reciprocal inhibition and post-isometric relaxation