Pehr Henrik Ling, a Swedish physiologist, is often referred to as the father of Swedish massage. In the early 1800s, Ling worked mostly with gymnasts and created a program that used both active and passive movements to improve performance. His personal experience with a painful injury that resolved after daily exercises was the inspiration for his work.

The exercises had a lot in common with calisthenics, focusing mostly on bodyweight exercises and movement that utilized full range of motion. He eventually worked with the Swedish government, founding the Royal Central Gymnastics Institute and becoming a prominent member of the medical community.

However, Ling’s program contained very little of the manual therapy we recognize today as Swedish massage; it was his student, Johan Georg Mezger, a Dutch physician, who named the five massage strokes that are typical of a Swedish massage: effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, friction, and vibration.

Why it is called “Swedish” massage?

If its creator is Dutch, why is it called a “Swedish” massage and the terms are in French?

Although Ling never used Swedish massage, the practice was incorrectly attributed to him as writers of the time used Mezger’s French terms when writing about Ling’s Swedish Gymnastics System. It came to the United States in the mid-1800s as part of the Swedish Movement Cure, and the name stuck.

Interestingly enough, in Sweden and other parts of Europe, Swedish massage is simply referred to as “classic” massage, which is essentially what it has become as the massage techniques are applied to a variety of settings, effectively separating it from any association with gymnastics.

Ling and Mezger originally developed these systems to relieve sore muscles, increase flexibility, and improve overall health. Over the years, practitioners have claimed that the benefits of Swedish massage range from improving circulation and flexibility to reducing pain and cortisol levels.

Nurses in the United States started to incorporate touch into their treatments in the late 1800s, which provided relaxation and created a more therapeutic relationship between the nurses and their patients. Texts from the early 1900s describe massage as a basic nursing skill, and nightly back massages were considered routine care in hospitals around the country.

What benefits did early Swedish massage practitioners believe?

Massage fell out of use in medical settings as pharmaceutical pain medication became available and the boundaries between healthcare providers and patients became stricter, but it still can have immense therapeutic value. Many practitioners claim it can reduce cellulite, “release” fascia, and even “flush toxins.”

Today, we know that the main benefits of Swedish massage come from gentle, enjoyable stimulation of the nervous system, which can have moderate effects on pain and significant effects on depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation.

Because of its simplicity and the ease with which it can be applied to a variety of people, Swedish massage is often used as basic training in massage schools before students are introduced to other modalities such as deep tissue, myofascial, or other cultural styles like Thai massage or shiatsu.

In Swedish massage, each technique can be applied to each part of the body, and the gentle approach is a good primer for therapeutic touch. Exploring anatomy first through broad strokes and then slowly getting more and more specific allows therapists to become familiar with the structures of the body. This soft touch provides a safe foundation for more advanced work and allows therapists the freedom to improvise within a familiar framework as they develop their own unique style.