How many types of massage are there?

There are likely a few dozen brands or names of different massage therapies in the world, but if you were to break them down to the basics, there are probably just less than ten—all involve some form of physical touch. Nonetheless, the type of massage you would use depends on what your intentions are, your health status, and prior experience.

For many people, massage just feels good, and the demand for massage therapy seems to be increasing—at least in the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that employment for massage therapy is expected to grow 22 percent from 2018 to 2028 (from nearly 160,000 to about 190,000) because more healthcare professionals see the value of massage and would likely hire massage therapists or refer their patients to one.

Recognizing the different types of massage, including the differences of touch quality, purpose, history, and other little details, could make a big difference in your experience and be a well-informed consumer. Plus, scientific evidence about massage therapy can help guide therapists and the public to what certain types of massage can and cannot do. This list provides some of the common types that you would likely encounter at a spa or private practice.

Swedish massage

massage therapy low back pain little confidence

Photo: Zack Miller

Swedish massage is the main staple of most Western societies, which involves gliding strokes and gentle kneading for a full-body relaxing experience. Massage schools often teach Swedish massage as the foundation to hands-on practice, and the modality can be combined with other types of massage, depending on the person being treated.

Deep tissue massage

deep tissue massage

Photo: Virginia Lee

Many spas offer deep tissue massage as a secondary option to Swedish massage as part of their list of services. Contrary to the popular idea that deep tissue massage is “better” than Swedish or other types of massage to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness, this type of massage can be painful and uncomfortable for some people if too much pressure is applied. Also, the relief many get from deep tissue massage is likely attributed to the nervous and endocrine systems as well as the person’s expectations and prior experience to deep tissue massage.

Like most types of massage, deep tissue massage needs a modern narrative to help the public be better informed about the treatment and outcomes they are receiving.

Sports massage

athletic sports trainer ankle pain massage

Photo: Nick Ng

Sports massage is a mixed bag of different techniques, such as effleurage, petrissage, and cross-fiber strokes, that are very similar to the ones found in Swedish massage. Sports massage doesn’t necessarily involve the therapist applying bone-deep pressure to the muscles that make you hiss in pain.

Currently, there is no consensus of the term “sports massage,” but there are some agreements among some sports massage therapists that it has to do with more about how they communicate with athletes and other clients and how much they understand injuries and their problems athletes often face than the modality itself.

Prenatal massage

prenatal massage therapy on young Latin woman

Photo: fineart, 123rf.com

What do you do when you have a headache or an achy back and you don’t want to take medications? A good prenatal massage may help relieve some of the common discomforts of pregnancy.

Like sports massage, prenatal massage has more to do with understanding the nature of a woman’s pregnancy and the problems she may be facing during her pregnancy than doing a technique. Of course, the therapist should know how to drape, use various tools to help make the client comfortable, and communicate with her during the session.

Reflexology

pregnant foot massage

Photo: Alice Sanvito

Reflexology is like a foot massage which is based on the idea that there are “points” or “zones” in the foot that somehow correspond to different internal organs (e.g. liver, stomach, spleen) or other parts of the body and face (e.g. jaw, temples, lower back). By pressing upon these areas, proponents of reflexology claims that it can help reduce pain, “improve function,” or bringing “balance” to the body.

Should you believe these claims despite the lack of quality scientific evidence? Should you get one anyway because getting your feet touched just feels good?

A look at the history and cultural context of reflexology—combined with scientific evidence—can help you decide.

Chair massage

chair massage US Air Force

Janice Lacey, owner and operator of Heaven’s Massage Garden, gives dependent Kimberly Brown a free massage during the Military Spouse Appreciation celebration at the Community Activities Center May 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Tonnette Thompson)

Chair massage is the appetizer or sampler on the massage menu. It has a wonderful appeal in terms of accessibility and affordability, and it provides a critically important way for many massage therapists to gain exposure to new clients. You can keep your clothes on, keep any messy oil off, and maybe even share the experience with some friends or coworkers. You can fit it in on a lunch break, and it’s only going to cost about $20, depending on which city or country you are in. If you new to you massage therapy, a chair massage is an affordable introduction.