Ahhh... the soothing sounds of a gentle soundtrack as you blissfully lay beneath a soft sheet, cocooned in relaxing smells and dim light. You find your nerves unbundling and your troubles slipping away as seasoned hands massage your back and shoulders. If you've ever been to a spa to enjoy the relaxing benefits of massage, you are familiar with this pattern. If you haven't, or feel that a massage might not really benefit you, think again. Massage therapy, particularly Swedish massage, has very particular health benefits beyond the bliss you might encounter after a day of pampering at the spa.
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What Is Swedish Massage?
Swedish massage is a great introductory massage for many reasons, number one being that it involves firm, yet gentle strokes. You are placed on a flat elevated massage table with a cutout for your face. Beginning on your stomach, the massage therapist will begin long, firm brush-like strokes along your back and eventually over your shoulders, arms, then down to lower back and legs. Halfway through the appointment you will be asked to turn over, finishing the second half face up for the treatment of your upper shoulders, arms and fronts of legs. Massage therapists usually use either the flat palm or heel of their hand or a grouping of fingertips to deliver pressure to tight spots and also help loosen and lengthen muscles. Unlike strictly pressure-point styles of massage like Shiatsu or stretching techniques such as Thai massage where a masseuse manipulates you while on the floor, Swedish massage is designed specifically to enhance circulation and blood flow to the large muscle groups, says Kathleen Jensen, director of operations for Massage Envy Spa in the San Diego Region.
Why It's a Popular Form of Massage Therapy
The popularity of massage as a therapeutic or holistic health tool, beyond just a relaxing splurge, has been on the uptick. For example, in just a few short years, Massage Envy has grown from a few dozen locations to more than 1,000 nationwide. Fans of Swedish massage swear by its overall health benefits and, in fact, several studies have looked at the technique's benefits for issues other than just stiffness or muscle aches and pains. Over the past few decades, a variety of studies have linked Swedish massage to a number of benefits, such as reduction in knee arthritis, easing the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, lowering blood pressure, boosting immune system function, reducing headaches and helping to mitigate the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Swedish Massage for Relaxation and Increased Circulation
Swedish massage's main benefit is the overall relaxation that it provides. A standard Swedish session lasts for 30 or 60 minutes, and addresses most major muscle groups of the body. The session is usually performed on a soft massage table, in an environment that is meant to relax the recipient. The strokes of the massage relax individual muscles, while the overall experience eliminates mental stress, but they also replicate the movements of the circulatory system. By performing the strokes toward the heart, Swedish massage drains metabolic waste from the limbs of the body. Some of the strokes used in Swedish therapy increase blood flow, which further quickens the removal of bodily waste.
Swedish Massage for Pain Relief
Swedish massage is also used as an integral part of pain management protocols for sports injuries and chronic pain. Sessions can target specific areas of pain like a sprained ankle, or they can be used to help manage the chronic pain that comes with conditions like arthritis. By using strokes that improve circulation and increase body-wide relaxation, the massage therapist can help make many painful conditions more bearable. I personally relied heavily on Swedish and therapeutic sports massage for more than 15 years as I battled an ongoing deterioration of my right hip due to congenital dysplasia. Born with a misaligned hip socket, each year the muscle tightness in my leg and low back worsened due to overcompensation from the stressed large muscles of my leg. Only the regular strokes of a professional massage therapist released the tightness that even deep stretching could not affect. Regular Swedish massage effectively managed the pain before my eventual hip replacement to correct the malformation.
Massage for Fatigue, Depression and Anxiety
One of the latest studies examines the correlation between Swedish massage and reduction in fatigue for cancer patients. In March of 2015, Emory University announced a continuation of its clinical trials relating to the biological benefits of massage therapy. The Emory University announcement reads: "Previous research… has already shown that massage therapy can boost the immune system and decrease anxiety for people who do not have cancer… We believe that there are many positive effects to be gained by therapeutic massage and we hope to prove that, among other biological advantages, massage may diminish the incapacitation that cancer-related fatigue can cause for our patients." Massage therapy is also being investigated as an aide to patients with more neuromuscular disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). In 2014, the University of Miami Medical School conducted a study of 24 individuals with MS who participated in a five-week massage experiment. Half of the participants received 45-minute massages twice a week while the other half were assigned to standard medical treatment. Compared with the controls, patients in the massage group experienced less depression, lowered anxiety, enhanced social function, better self-esteem and improved body image. This ties into the idea that massage reduces cortisol, or the "stress" hormone, according to Massage Envy's Jensen. "Massage decreases cortisol while increasing serotonin, which leaves you in a 'feeling good' bliss."
Other Benefits of Swedish Massage
Massage therapy can be helpful with a number of other physical challenges, such as reduction in scar tissue by physically manipulating the fibers of the tissue, allowing the scar tissue to be successfully reabsorbed into the skin. Additionally, it can aid with lymphatic drainage, where the long strokes of the therapist help move fluids successfully out of clogged areas. Interestingly, many patients and therapists swear by massage as a way to reduce constipation or digestive upset, since the increased circulatory benefits and relaxation of the abdominal and lower back muscles can help relieve symptoms. In fact, a 2015 piece by Chelsea Clark of the Natural Health Advisory Institute highlights a number of the ways abdominal massage encouraging muscle contraction, nudging the gut to move things along. Additional reporting provided by James Mulcahy.