The Difference Between Swedish Massage & Deep Tissue Massage

When you think about getting a massage, most people picture unwinding in a spa as the masseuse caresses them with soothing music playing in the background. While it is true that a massage can help you relax, there are many different types.

A relaxed woman on a table receiving a massage. (Image: Twenty20/@TonyTheTigersSon)

Two of the most common ones are the Swedish massage and deep tissue massage. Each of these unique techniques has a specific purpose and will feel completely different to the person on the receiving end.

What is a Swedish Massage?

The Swedish massage is the type that many people associate with a relaxing trip to the spa. This technique, which was originated around 1868 by a Dutch doctor named Johann Georg Mezger, is primarily designed to relieve tension and energize you.

It does this by using several specific types of massage movements including effleurage, petrissage, tapotement and friction.

Effleurage involves long, slow sliding movements with the palm of the masseuse's hand or their fingers over the top layer of your skin. Oil may be used to help their hands glide over the area being addressed. Typically this movement is used at the start and the end of the Swedish massage.

Petrissage, on the other hand, involves kneading, rolling and even picking up of the skin and muscles. This technique is more focused on a specific muscle or muscle group and helps to bring blood flow to the area being worked on.

Tapotement, or percussion, involves quick drumming or pounding type movements. This technique also stimulates blood flow as well as helping to tone the muscle or skin being addressed during the Swedish massage.

Finally, the friction technique incorporates deeper, static pressure to particular areas of tightness or spasm. This type of pressure is typically applied for a few seconds with the fingers, thumb or knuckles before being released when the tightness resolves.

What is a Deep Tissue Massage?

The deep tissue massage is a type of technique designed to break up adhesions in the muscle and surrounding connective tissue, called the fascia.

The masseuse works layer by layer through connective tissue and muscles down to the deepest accessible layers to change posture and create freedom of movement by releasing fascial adhesions and chronic muscle contracture. Typically this technique is used to address chronic aches and pains or stiff and contracted areas of the body.

Deep tissue massages usually involve two specific strokes: Stripping and friction. Stripping applies deep pressure using the elbow, forearm or hands that glides along the length of a muscle or muscle group. Friction, as discussed earlier, uses pressure to release adhesions in spastic muscles.

Deep tissue massages focus on the fascia and adhesions in the muscles. (Image: Twenty20/@lu_)

Why Do Deep Tissue Massages Hurt?

Because these strokes are typically firmer and focus on breaking up adhesions in deeper areas of your body, it is not uncommon to experience discomfort during a deep tissue massage. That said, it is crucially important to communicate with your massage therapist about any pain you are feeling.

If you are in too much discomfort, you may tense up, making it impossible to access the areas of your body the masseuse is attempting to reach. Small adjustments in technique may help you relax and can make this type of massage much more effective.

Following a deep tissue massage, you may experience some initial tightness or soreness in the areas being addressed. Typically these symptoms last for a day or two afterward.

Drinking water may help resolve this soreness by flushing metabolic waste from the tissues and muscles that were worked on. Using a cold pack wrapped in a towel on the sore areas may also help. Again, be sure to inform your massage therapist if you have any unexpected pain after getting a deep tissue massage.

What is the Difference Between a Swedish Massage and a Deep Tissue Massage?

Early on, both a Swedish massage and a deep tissue massage feel similar. While each type starts off with light, gentle strokes over the top of the skin meant to relax the individual, this is where the similarities end. A deep tissue massage is not just a firmer, more intense version of a Swedish massage.

Instead, the deep tissue technique is specifically designed to break up knots in muscles and work through adhesions in connective tissue that limit your body's ability to move and function. Swedish massage, on the other hand, is meant to stimulate relaxation and relieve tension in the muscles being worked on.

What Is the Best Type of Massage to Get?

Choosing the right type of massage may seem confusing, but thinking about your symptoms may help lead you in the right direction. Swedish massages are perfect for people who are stressed out or sore after a long day of work or an intense workout.

In particular, people who carry their tension in their shoulder blades, lower back or neck muscles may find this technique helpful. In addition, anyone looking for overall relaxation should consider the Swedish technique.

Swedish massages can provide many different groups of people with several important benefits. Because this technique can help relieve pain and soothe stressed muscles, individuals with fibromyalgia or chronic pain syndrome might find it helpful in managing their condition.

In addition, because it improves blood flow to an area and loosens tight muscles that surround a joint, Swedish massage may be beneficial to individuals who have arthritis.

While there is certainly carryover between who can benefit from each type of massage, the deep tissue massage may be better suited for people who are experiencing a specific injury or who have chronic, nagging pain in a particular area. Athletes or individuals in the midst of training for a more intense event may also find this technique particularly helpful.

Like the Swedish massage, the deep tissue technique offers benefits to a wide array of people. Anyone with a build-up of scar tissue after a surgery or injury may find this technique helpful in breaking up these adhesions. In addition, people suffering from migraines or severe headaches may also get relief.

Finally, chronic musculoskeletal conditions like shoulder pain, low back pain, neck pain or plantar fasciitis may improve after getting a deep tissue massage.

Warning

While there are many wonderful benefits of massage therapy, several groups of individuals should exercise caution before getting one. Anyone taking a blood thinner or with a bruising or bleeding disorder may find their condition exacerbated following a massage.


In addition, people with skin conditions, a history of deep vein thrombosis, an acute flare-up of an inflammatory condition or chronic heart or kidney failure should be particularly careful. In general, it is best to address any concerns or questions you have with your physician prior to getting a massage.

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