What is the history of massage therapy?

Massage therapy dates back thousands of years. References to massage appear in writings from ancient China, Japan, India, Arabic nations, Egypt, Greece (Hippocrates defined medicine as "the art of rubbing"), and Rome.

Massage became widely used in Europe during the Renaissance. In the 1850s, two American physicians who had studied in Sweden introduced massage therapy in the United States, where it became popular and was promoted for a variety of health purposes. With scientific and technological advances in medical treatment during the 1930s and 1940s, massage fell out of favor in the United States. Interest in massage revived in the 1970s, especially among athletes.

The Benefits Of Massage

What exactly are the benefits of receiving massage or bodywork treatments? Useful for all of the conditions listed below and more, massage can:

  •     Alleviate low-back pain and improve range of motion.
  •     Assist with shorter, easier labor for expectant mothers and shorten maternity hospital stays.
  •     Ease medication dependence.
  •     Enhance immunity by stimulating lymph flow—the body's natural defense system.
  •     Exercise and stretch weak, tight, or atrophied muscles.
  •     Help athletes of any level prepare for, and recover from, strenuous workouts.
  •     Improve the condition of the body's largest organ—the skin.
  •     Increase joint flexibility.
  •     Lessen depression and anxiety.
  •     Promote tissue regeneration, reducing scar tissue and stretch marks.
  •     Pump oxygen and nutrients into tissues and vital organs, improving circulation.
  •     Reduce postsurgery adhesions and swelling.
  •     Reduce spasms and cramping.
  •     Relax and soften injured, tired, and overused muscles.
  •     Release endorphins—amino acids that work as the body's natural painkiller.
  •     Relieve migraine pain.

SO, Does Massage Therapy “Work”?

Hopefully it’s now obvious that this is not quite the right question. Does it work for what? What kind of massage therapy? How do we even define the benefits? Is modest, unreliable, temporary relief from muscle pain a significant enough benefit to base a profession on? Do a few subtleties like “relaxation” add up to “works”?

Good massage therapists are the ones with more training and a bigger toolkit. They do what they can with the tools they judge to be the most useful, and they candidly discuss risks, benefits, evidence, and controversies. They don’t just pay lip service to humility as a general principle of alternative medicine — they make it a centerpiece, recognizing that they really are not trained enough to know much.

Meanwhile, bad massage therapists oversell a narrow selection of less effective and mostly faith-based options, and generally lack the training or critical thinking skills to recognize their own limitations. This is no different in principle than any other health care profession.