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Top 10 Massage Techniques

Back in the days before aspirin, heating pads and whirlpools, humans treated their sore bodies the old-fashioned way: With massage. When a caveman twisted one of his Neanderthal knees, he rubbed it.

In many ways, massage is the most natural of natural remedies. Touching your body where it hurts seems to be a basics instinct, like running from danger or eating when you’re hungry. And experts say that massage, no matter how humble or low-tech it may seem, can be a powerful healer.

Massage has come a long way over the centuries.

SWEDISH MASSAGE uses soothing, tapping and kneading strokes to work the entire body, relieving muscle tension and loosening sore joints. Swedish massage therapists use five basic strokes, which anyone can learn and use on themselves and others. They are effleurage (stroking); petrissage (muscles are lightly grabbed and lifted); friction (thumbs and fingertips work in deep circles into the thickest part of muscles); tapotement (chopping, beating, and tapping strokes); and vibration (fingers are pressed or flattened firmly on a muscle, then the area is shaken rapidly for a few seconds).


targets chronic tension in muscles that lie far below the surface of your body. You have five layers of muscle in your back, for instance, and while Swedish massage may help the first couple of layers, it won’t do much directly for the muscle underneath. Deep muscle techniques usually involve slow strokes, direct pressure or friction movements that go across the grain of the muscles. Massage therapists will use their fingers, thumbs or occasionally even elbows to apply the needed pressure.

SPORTS MASSAGE is designed to help you train better, whether you’re a world champion or a weekend warrior. The techniques are similar to those in Swedish and deep tissue massage, but Greene says sports massage has been adapted to meet the athlete’s special needs. Pre-event massage can help warm up muscles and improve circulation before competition, but it can also energize or relax an athlete and help him focus on the competition. Post-event massage can push waste products out of the body and improve recovery.

NEUROMUSCULAR MASSAGE is a form of deep tissue massage that is applied to individual muscles. It is used to increase blood flow, reduce pain and release pressure on nerves caused by injuries to muscles and other soft tissue. Neuromuscular massage helps release trigger points, intense knots of tense muscle can also “refer” pain to other parts of the body. Relieving a tense trigger point in your back, for example, could help ease pain in your shoulder or reduce headaches.

ROLFING seeks to re-educate your body about posture. When posture is poor, Bienenfeld says, it can be reflected in a number of health problems, such as backaches, headaches and joint pain. Rolfing seeks to realign and straighten your body by working the myofascia, the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles and helps hold your body together. The 10-session, head-to-toe Rolfing program used to be rather painful, but Bienenfeld says new techniques that employ a therapist’s hands and elbows are quite tolerable and just as effective at improving your posture.

HELLERWORK is an offshoot of Rolfing that adds both mental and movement re-education to the physical work. In a series of 11 sessions, you get instruction on how to break bad posture habits and you also get a massage that focuses on returning your muscles and other tissue to their proper positions. The result can be dramatic. “Sometimes we can greatly increase the spaces in your joints to the point where you may grown three-fourths of an inch taller before you’re done,” Bienenfeld says.

CRANIOSACRAL THERAPY focuses on the skull and spinal column. Therapists use very gently pressure no more than the weight of a nickel to massage the bones, membranes and fluids that support and bathe your skull and spinal column. The theory is that these manipulations will reduce tension and counteract any physical trauma you may have experienced to your head over the years.

ASTON-PATTERNING, another offshoot of Rolfing, was developed to teach people to maintain the improved alignment that they got through Rolfing. Aston-Patterning uses posture re-education and stresses physical fitness techniques.

FELDENKRAIS treats every body as an individual work of art, with different postures and different movement patterns. Practitioners seek to teach their clients ideal patterns of movement through slow, gentle, exercise-like sessions. It also includes a gentle massage that is designed to teach a person how to expand his range of motion. Bienenfeld says it’s often useful for victims of stroke or accidents who have lost movement.

TRAGER uses gentle, rocking massage to help release the body’s harmful “holding patterns.” If you injured your left shoulder as a child, for example, you still may unconsciously carry it lower than your right shoulder, throwing your body off balance and robbing you of energy. Therapists employ very light, gentle shaking techniques that are unlike traditional Swedish-style massage. The idea is to make people more aware of their bodies, especially the way they move and hold themselves. For some reason, freeing people of physical holding patterns also seems to rid them of emotional stress that they associated with the prior injury.

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