Massage is one of the most relaxing, therapeutic and decadent ways to spend an hour, whether it's your significant other rubbing your shoulders at the end of a long day or a trained massage therapist digging a thumb into a knotted hamstring muscle. And if you needed another excuse to get a massage, American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) spokesperson Mary Beth Packard says "massage calms the nervous system, replenishes lost nutrients, facilitates blood flow in tight muscles (which helps soften and relax them) and improves range of motion."
Physicians prescribe massage to manage stress and pain or as part of a physical therapy regimen for a variety of injuries. In fact, according to the AMTA, massage therapists receive some 114 million visits to their offices each year. Here, we give you the rub on the most popular methods and some other hands-on training:
Massage Techniques At-a-Glance
Deep tissue: A technique that uses slow strokes and deep hand pressure on tight areas. The therapist works to release tension and restore suppleness and length in muscles.
Shiatsu: A combination of massage and acupressure, during which the therapist applies pressure to special points along your "meridians" (according to Oriental medicine, meridians are the invisible channels through which energy flows in the body).
Reflexology: Similar to shiatsu, but the focus is on the hands and feet, the idea being that certain areas of your hands or feet correspond to distinct body parts. A reflexologist would try to ease sinus pain, for instance, by manipulating the toes.
Sports massage: A combination of several massage techniques with a focus on the muscle groups that are used in your specific sport.
Swedish: A combination of effleurage (gliding strokes designed to stretch and relax the muscle), kneading and friction on the muscle, as well as movement of the joints.
Trigger point: For this type of intense massage, the therapist applies finger pressure on trigger points (knots) to break patterns of muscle spasm and pain. Trigger points—commonly found in the lower back, shoulders and neck—are small, sensitive areas in muscle fibers that result from stress.
The Professional Massage
To find a certified masseuse, contact the American Massage Therapy Association at 888-THE-AMTA. Many states require professional massage therapists to earn a license, which entails 500 hours of training and a written exam. When you arrive for your appointment, your therapist should brief you about what to expect and ask about any special problems you've been having or medical conditions that she needs to be aware of (i.e., pregnancy, high blood pressure, cancer or a history of blood clots). During the massage itself, don't be afraid to tell your therapist if she is using too much or too little pressure. The whole point of massage is to make you feel good.
If you've got tension but no time—or money—for a massage, here are a few techniques you can try on yourself:
Feet: Sit with one foot resting on the opposite thigh. Using your thumbs, fingers and palms, massage the bottom of your foot. Concentrate on the arch as you stroke lengthwise and in a circular motion.
Hips and buttocks: Place a tennis ball on the floor and sit on it so the ball is beneath the tense area. Place one hand on a wall for balance and roll the ball around to massage the tight area.
Hamstrings: Sit on the floor against a wall and stretch your legs out in front of you. Bend one leg so your foot is flat on the floor. Encircle your thigh with both hands, thumbs on the side of your thigh. Use both hands to shake, squeeze and knead the hamstrings.
Back: Place a tennis ball between your back and the wall. Press into the ball and shift from side to side and up and down to massage your back.