Can Massage Therapy Help with Chronic Pain Management?

Many people seek massage therapy for medical reasons. According to the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2014 and 2015 consumer surveys, 52% of people got massages for one of the following reasons:

  • To relieve and manage pain
  • To address spasms, soreness, and stiffness
  • To recover and rehabilitate from injuries
  • To stay fit and increase health and wellness
  • To ease discomfort during pregnancy

In 2015, 16% of American adults discussed massage therapy with their doctors and other health care providers, and about 69% of the time, their physicians and health care workers strongly recommended massage therapy and gave them a referral. Physicians were the most likely health care providers to recommend massage, but chiropractors, physical therapists, and mental health professionals also encouraged their patients to seek a massage therapist.

How Does Massage Provide Pain Relief After Injuries?

As the body of relevant research grows, more doctors recommend massage therapy to people in pain. Researchers from one study observed a group of young men with exercise-related injuries to their skeletal muscles. They knew massage therapy was linked to pain relief and wanted to uncover the mechanisms of this effect.

The researchers found massage therapy reduced stress on a cellular level, decreased inflammation, and increased mitochondrial biogenesis in these study participants. Mitochondria exist within cells, provide energy and respiration, and contribute to the healing of cellular injuries.

According to the study, massage reduced the pain of injuries in much the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs do. Massage therapy also has fewer potential side effects than prescription painkillers.

Can Massage Therapy Relieve Your Chronic Pain?

Lower back pain – According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers have found promising evidence that massage therapy can benefit people with lower back pain. Researchers at Canada’s Institute for Work and Health found acupressure was more effective for lower back pain than Swedish massage. Thai massage produced similar results to Swedish massage. The researchers recommended massage therapy in conjunction with exercises and relevant education.

Headaches – In a study of people who experience chronic tension headaches, researchers found massage therapy reduced the frequency and duration of these headaches. Even short 30-minute sessions could alleviate certain headaches, and the participants experienced significant reductions in headache frequency after only the first week of this eight-week study.

Arthritis knee pain – In a study of people who had knee pain from arthritis, researchers found massage therapy provided pain relief benefits for at least eight weeks after treatment. In a follow-up study, they determined weekly 60-minute massage sessions were the most effective, given their convenience, cost, and consistency.

Neck pain – In a study of 228 people living with chronic neck pain, a team of doctors found 60-minute massage sessions were more effective than 30-minute ones. They urged physicians to relate this information to their patients when recommending massage for neck pain.

Fibromyalgia – A researcher in Sweden found people with fibromyalgia who received massage therapy felt less pain up to six months after treatment. In this study of 48 patients, the researcher found 15 massage therapy treatments over a 10-week period relieved 37% of pain, relieved feelings of depression, and decreased study participants’ need for painkillers.

Cancer pain – Cancer patients have long turned to massage therapy for relief from pain related to cancer and cancer treatments. One research group found massage therapy is effective for short-term treatment of anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In their review of many previous studies, they highlighted one in which cancer patients experienced a 50% reduction in symptoms after receiving massage therapy.


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Understanding the Elements of Shiatsu Massage

Today, shiatsu has become a brand name synonymous with massage and relaxation. Retailers offer shiatsu chairs, shiatsu pillows, shiatsu cushions, shiatsu foot massagers, and many other devices. Massage therapists of all sorts practice shiatsu massage around the globe, in many popular variations and styles. But what is the true, genuine shiatsu technique? How did its creators practice it, and what are the elements that go into it?

What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Like acupressure, the shiatsu massage tradition involves both physiological and physical healing. Like many massage therapists, shiatsu practitioners use finger pressure, stretches, and manipulation; however, unlike their Western counterparts, they conduct this bodywork on clients’ energy centers and pathways. Shiatsu, which originated in Japan, comes from knowledge passed down by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

For more than 2,000 years, Chinese healers have passed down the secrets of massage, herbalism, acupuncture, acupressure, qigong, and tai chi. Other Asian countries have similar therapeutic traditions, such as the Japanese herbal healing practice of kampo. Japanese shiatsu practitioners employ traditional Chinese medicine theories and techniques of chi energy, just like their counterparts in Chinese acupuncture and acupressure; however, they have developed shiatsu into a unique, more modern healing modality.

What Is Chi?

Chi (also called ki or qi) is the life energy that flows through our bodies. When this healing flow is blocked, health may fade and illness may arise. Practitioners of many disciplines that grew from traditional Chinese medicine seek to release blockages in their clients, restore a proper balance of yin and yang (among other factors), and create healing and wellness.

What Are Meridians?

Tokujiro Namikoshi, the founder of shiatsu massage, discovered his natural healing ability while treating his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis. He found certain points on her limbs were cold and stiff; when he rubbed them, her condition improved. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had discovered a blocked meridian point.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, 12 interconnecting meridians run throughout the body. Each has a corresponding internal organ (stomach, liver, kidney, spleen, gall bladder, etc.). By manipulating various points along these meridians, practitioners can release blockages and promote healing.

Who Founded Zen Shiatsu?

Shizuto Masunaga, the creator of Zen shiatsu, grew up in a family of bodywork practitioners. He studied psychology and the medical science of massage. He taught psychology at both Tokyo University and the Japan Shiatsu School.

Masunaga named his Zen shiatsu after the Zen philosophy, which has great influence on Japanese culture. People who follow the Zen philosophy seek to understand their basic nature and achieve enlightenment, typically by training the mind through meditation. Masunaga applied this Zen approach to his family’s shiatsu bodywork, along with the Western science he learned at university.

Masunaga popularized his system across Japan, and other practitioners later brought it to the United States. He modified the traditional Chinese medicine system of 12 meridians by extending them out from the internal organs to the arms and legs. Zen shiatsu clients rest on futons laid on the floor so practitioners can apply pressure with fingers, elbows, and other parts of the body from all directions and with more body weight than the simple finger pressure of other styles.

What Styles of Shiatsu Exist Today?

As shiatsu gained popularity and became a worldwide phenomenon, it split into many branches. Today’s shiatsu therapists focus on chi energy and diagnosis, physiological and psychological healing, relaxation and happiness, wellness, lifestyles, diet, healthy communities, and much more.

One of Masunaga’s students, Tomas Nelissen, founded the International Academy for Hara Shiatsu, focusing on holistic health of people through their hara, or midsection, where mental and physical health and well-being can be stimulated. Macrobiotic shiatsu practitioners teach balanced living and eating and barefoot shiatsu, and they also follow the traditional acupuncture meridian system. Five Elements shiatsu practitioners keep to the classic theories of traditional Chinese medicine, including the classic meridian system and yin/yang balance.

What Are the Five Elements?

In traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners recognize five elements: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. Known as the Five Element Theory, it is believed that these five elements are able to impact or influence the body in multiple ways. Practitioners of shiatsu, acupuncture, and acupressure follow this theory by learning to combine the various elements in their sessions.

What Are Yin and Yang?

In the Yi Jing (“Book of Changes”), ancient Chinese thinkers and healers used the ideas of yin and yang (two opposite, but complementary energies) to understand the world around them and create a basic cosmology. They also believed in six types of chi, as well as the five elements. As Chinese scientists began to emerge and further classify nature, they combined these ideas with practical skills to create many medical traditions, including acupuncture, acupressure, herbalism, and massage.


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12 Popular Massage Techniques and How They Help You

Are you new to massage therapy? Whether you’re an experienced person looking to expand your self-care horizons or a massage newbie, you’ll likely be amazed by the number of available massage therapy techniques and practices and the benefits they can bring you.

For those of you trying massage therapy for the first time, or for those looking to explore new techniques for health and wellness, here’s 12 of the most popular massage and bodywork practices and some info on how they might benefit you:


Acupressure therapists use the same meridian system as acupuncture practitioners, but without the needles!

For more than 5,000 years, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have developed and refined this traditional healing art. Acupressurists, as they are called, use their hands to apply pressure to trigger points throughout the body. This technique is believed to unblock “stuck” body energy and open up the pathway for healing energy to return the mind and body to a state of wellness.

Acupressure has been used to treat sexual dysfunction, stress, and for beauty purposes. Acupression, for example, may improve the skin, tone facial muscles, and help the body relieve congestions.

Aromatherapy Massage

Ancient cultures across the globe have practiced massage and aromatherapy. Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian practitioners, for example, have incorporated these modalities into many of their medicinal traditions. Ancient Greeks and Romans used these techniques not only for healing and relaxation but also for spiritual enlightenment. Massage therapists who combine massage and aromatherapy may provide clients with a deeper, more relaxing experience than a standard massage.

While you’re getting your massage, inhale your favorite scent or have your practitioner recommend one to meet your individual needs, such as lavender for stress and anxiety relief.

Chair Massage

Many people first experience the benefits of massage and bodywork in the form of chair massage. Chair massage therapists, sometimes spotted in shopping malls and airports, use special chairs that allow clients to remain fully clothed and mostly upright.

This often quick, soothing form of massage allows people to take a quick and healthful break from their busy day. Researchers have shown that even these short massage breaks reduce people’s heart rates, blood pressure, and, of course, stress and anxiety levels.

Many corporations have found that periodically offering chair massage as a benefit to their employees increases productivity, focus, and morale. In only 10-20 minutes, your staff can enjoy the stress relief, health benefits, and team-building experience of chair massage in the convenience of your workplace.

Chinese Massage

Chinese tui na massage practitioners employ rhythmic compression methods to free up and balance “qi” (body energy). These massage therapists combine energy work and meridian release elements of related practices like acupressure and acupuncture, without using any needles. Tui na also involves many of the rubbing and kneading techniques common to most Western massage styles.

Gua Sha

This ancient Chinese practice roughly translates into English as “scraping away fever.” Traditional practitioners of gua sha used bone, stone, jade, or horn implements to rub their clients’ oiled skin. Today, gua sha therapists tend to use rounded plastic tools to offer their clients a less painful and more modern hygienic experience. Gua sha practitioners use these implements to rub their clients’ backs and shoulders to increase circulation beneath the skin (often using a soothing, lubricating balm).

Medical researchers have found evidence that this simple technique encourages the body to release many powerful healing effects. As the body reabsorbs the blood from the treated areas (which often appear red and blotchy for a few days), it releases chemicals that fight infection, reduce inflammation, and protect cells.

Hot Stone Massage

Hot stone massage therapists heat special stones in a sanitary solution and place them on their clients’ backs, in their palms, and even between their toes. Like the popular Swedish style of massage, hot stone massage therapists may use oils to lubricate their clients’ surface tissues before employing deep tissue techniques.

Your hot stone massage practitioner may even rub your muscles lengthwise with the heated stones to release even more tension.

Lomi Lomi

Traditional Hawaiian healers called “kahunas” employed massage techniques in conjunction with meditation, plant-based medicine, and breath work. Also sometimes referred to as Hawaiian temple medicine, lomi lomi massage can help you activate mana (life energy) to increase well-being, increase circulation, and lower blood pressure.

Myofascial Release

Connective tissues called fascia run throughout your entire body. They surround and support your muscles, which means they can inhibit range of motion when tightened by overuse, injury, or surgical recovery.
Unlike massage therapists, who work on muscles and soft tissues, myofascial release practitioners focus on fascial lengthening and softening to reduce pain and increase mobility.

Orthopedic Massage

Orthopedic massage practitioners focus on correcting malformed bones and muscles with massage therapy techniques. These therapists help their clients manage pain, achieve better alignment and posture, and improve joint function.


Reflexology therapists massage their clients’ hands and feet to activate inner healing. This practice bears many similarities to acupressure and acupuncture, but, again, without using any needles. Reflexology practitioners manipulate points on their patients’ bodies that correspond with internal organs.

This healing modality can trigger your autonomous nervous system and increase hormone production.


Named after its founder, Ida Rolf, this massage technique involves may involved a little more discomfort than some gentler styles. Also known as structural integration, this style of massage may greatly improve your posture and range of motion.

Rolfing practitioners assist their clients in achieving moderately difficult yoga-like poses to realign their musculoskeletal systems and bear their body weight better with proper posture.

Russian Massage

Modern Russian massage, sometimes called Russian sports massage, was once only available to athletes, the ill, and the injured. Russian (and Soviet) physicians advanced the science and practice of massage on the battlefield and in the sports arena. Russia, a comparatively massage-friendly nation, has provided some of the world’s top massage researchers and therapists.

Russian bath houses, called banyas, still offer traditional Russian massage venik (or “twigging”) treatments which involve hitting clients (gently) with oak or birch branches. However, modern Russian massage practitioners use their hands to relieve pain and increase range of motion with kneading, percussive, and even vibration techniques.

And There’s More!

Some consider Reiki a form of massage; others view it as energy- or bodywork. Like massage therapists, Reiki practitioners place their hands on their clients’ bodies; however, they don’t rub and knead soft tissues. Simply by placing their hands on a patient (for up to 10 minutes a position), Reiki masters are believed to be able to transmit healing energy and clear out negative thoughts and emotion.

Whether you choose to find a massage therapist for an intense, relaxing, spiritual, or practical massage style, remember you can always return to this site (and this article) to explore new and different massage therapy options. You can also click the relevant links to dig deeper into these types of massage to discover their history, medical science, and modern practice—as well as what to expect from your first massage session!


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