What’s the difference between a Swedish massage and a deep tissue massage—aren’t they the same thing? Are the benefits the same no matter what you get?
There are literally dozens of massage modalities, some rooted in ancient practice and others more recently developed. Knowing the basic differences between them can help ensure you book a session that fulfills your expectations. Here are five of the more common massage and bodywork styles you may encounter:
1. Swedish massage – the classic
Unless otherwise noted, Swedish massage is the kind you can most commonly expect when booking a session at a spa, gym, studio or clinic. This modality can be gentle and vigorous and offers a range of benefits including stress relief, relaxation and muscle release.
Therapists performing a Swedish massage incorporate five basic strokes: effleurage (smooth, gliding strokes), petrissage (squeezing, rolling or kneading), friction, tapotement (tapping) and vibration.
2. Deep tissue – the one that works out your “knots”
Another common modality, deep tissue massage is specific and targeted, focusing on restoring blood flow to deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue. Using a range of techniques, and often at a slower pace, the therapist will work to help release chronically tense or injured spots, which are sometimes referred to as knots.
Also known as deep muscle therapy or deep tissue therapy, deep tissue massage is often blended with Swedish massage for a relaxing treatment that also targets tense or troublesome areas.
3. Manual lymph drainage – the detoxifier
While other massage modalities could be said to have some detoxifying benefits, lymphatic massage is all about removing toxins, promoting drainage and boosting immunity. It can help reduce edema (i.e., retention of fluids).
Practitioners use a gentle pressure when performing lymphatic massage, and the massage may include light strokes, circular rubbing and tapping to facilitate lymphatic drainage.
4. Shiatsu – the energizer
Shiatsu means “finger pressure” in Japanese, and that is quite literally what you can expect from a shiatsu session. Therapists stimulate acupressure points throughout the body to relieve blockages and sore muscles, improve circulation and alleviate stress. General bodywork may also be incorporated. Clothing is traditionally kept on during shiatsu.
Within this type of massage are many subtypes, including Zen shiatsu, tsubo point therapy, shiatsu massage and water shiatsu. As explained by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork website glossary, balancing energy flow (i.e., Chi/Ki/Qi) is the goal of all shiatsu varieties.
5. Sports massage – the athlete’s best friend
You don’t have to be a pro to benefit from a sports massage. This style of massage can help athletes of all intensities prepare for and recover from athletic events. Practitioners use Swedish strokes along with compression, pressure-point therapy, cross-fiber friction, joint mobilization, hydrotherapy and cryotherapy.
Every massage and every massage therapist will be a little different. When scheduling an appointment, discuss what you are looking for (e.g., pure relaxation, muscle work on a sore shoulder, post-race recovery) to ensure you are making the right selection.
As you would with any healthcare provider, be sure to ask your massage therapist questions and share as much about your medical history as possible. Massage can be beneficial to a variety of health conditions, but it can also be contraindicated.
During your appointment, communicate with your practitioner if you want them to adjust their pressure, experience pain or unusual sensations, become too cold or have any other concerns.
Dr.Weil.com. “Lymphatic Massage Therapy.” http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03409/Lymphatic-Massage-Therapy.html
NCBTMB. “Glossary: Therapy & Techniques.” http://www.ncbtmb.org/consumers/glossary-therapy-techniques
Prilutsky, Boris. “Lymph Drainage for Detoxification.” Massage Bodywork. June/July 2006. http://www.massagetherapy.com/articles/index.php/article_id/1200/Lymph-Drainage-for-Detoxification-
Shiatsu Society. “About Shiatsu.” http://www.shiatsusociety.org/treatments/about-shiatsu
WebMD “Massage Therapy Styles and Health Benefits.” http://www.webmd.com/balance/massage-therapy-styles-and-health-benefits
 NCBTMB. “Glossary: Therapy & Techniques.” http://www.ncbtmb.org/consumers/glossary-therapy-techniques