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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Flux

Massage Therapy: What IS it really?

If you're here reading this, you are probably a massage devotee like myself. But I find it interesting that even the most devoted massage lovers don't often stop to wonder - what IS massage therapy? What makes a massage a "therapy", versus the ol' shoulder rub your partner might give you after a long day at work? And more importantly - how do you make sure you get a good one?

A (very) brief History of Massage

That shoulder rub your partner gives you IS massage - in fact, any rubbing and pressing on muscles counts as massage. However, for it to be considered "therapy", it needs to be applied in a systemised way to improve your health (as this article outlines). This usually means its provided by a an experienced and well-trained massage therapist.

Massage therapy was until recently regarded as a luxury for the wealthy - something the "average" person might enjoy once a year or so if they were lucky. So it surprises many massage lovers to learn that the application of massage to support health and wellbeing is thousands of years old.

In fact the first records of massage being used in a medicinal system was in India in 3000 BC. Most traditional cultures used some form of rubbing the body to encourage healing and wellbeing. Hippocrates, the famous Ancient Greek philosopher, said "Anyone wishing to study medicine must master the art of massage" (If you want to read a slightly more detailed history of massage, check out AMC's article here).

It was only in the last few hundred years that massage dropped out of favour with medicinal practitioners, as modern medicine moved away from traditional treatments and towards pharmaceuticals, surgery and the use of new technologies.

Massage in the Modern Era

Massage in the western world is largely based on the treatment developed by Dutch physician Johan Georg Mezger. Dr Mezger incorporated effluerage (stroking), petrisage (kneading), tapotement (tapping / striking), frictions and vibrations into a system of treatment now known as Swedish massage in Australia and America. In Europe it is more correctly known as classic massage.

In Australia, massage therapy appears to have been introduced as a complementary medical treatment in the late 1800's and early 1900's. It travelled from Europe, where Pehr Henrik Ling's exercise therapy and Dr. Mezger's physical therapy had gained popularity as methods to aid patients' recovery from injury and surgery. Massage therapists generally associated themselves closely with surgeons and general physicians, taking direct instruction from their directing medical practitioner to treat the patient. Medical practitioners were amenable to referring their patients to well-trained massage therapists, as massage was labour and time intensive - many patients would receive an hour treatment several days a week for several weeks.

In the mid-1900's, in an effort to gain further credibility, the Australian Massage Association became the Australian Physiotherapists Association. Physiotherapy gradually became a university-trained profession, where professionals learnt to apply a range of exercise therapy as well as some manual treatment. However the focus was on lifestyle advice and exercise prescription, with more specific manual techniques applied to specific tissues and structures rather than holistic treatments incorporating large areas of the patients' body.

So what happened to the massage therapists of today? While physiotherapy became established as the main-stream physical therapy in Australia, the concept of the hour-long holistic massage treatment languished on the sidelines for a while. However there were still practitioners who chose to continue the older styles of treatment, and in the last few decades, qualifications have been formalised and training institutes have to meet strict standards to issue government recognised qualifications. In the last couple of decades, massage therapy has once again become accepted as a main-stream health practice.

Keep an eye out for my next blog post, where I'll outline some key ways to make sure you find a good massage therapist and recieve a great massage!


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