Massage therapy  means many things to many people. In fact, a recently published scholarly article identifies more than 80 different styles of massage, many of which have been developed in the past 30 years! But to start, let's simply define massage as the manual manipulation of soft body tissues (muscle, connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments) to enhance health and wellbeing.
This definition excludes some kinds of bodywork, such as craniosacral therapy , Traeger, and Feldenkrais. While they are sometimes called "massage," they don't use manipulation of soft tissue as the main therapy. This definition also excludes therapies that are primarily energy work, such as Healing Touch , Reiki , acupressure, and reflexology .
Massage is often used for specific reasons, such as relief from pain, stress reduction , or enhancement of athletic performance. But whether there is a specific goal or not, massage therapy tends to increase the general health and wellbeing of the recipient.
As the profession of massage therapy has grown, and more people are investing time and money in feeling better, many new terms are being used to market massage. As a result, it can be hard to understand just what is being offered.
To try to reduce the confusion, we have created two tables that explain various terms. The first table lists commercial names that are often associated with relaxation styles of massage; the second lists names associated with clinical styles. (A style of massage uses a set of specific techniques for a specific outcome. In a typical massage session, a therapist often uses more than one style to address different health goals.)
Relaxation styles of massage offer gentle techniques. The goal, or intention, of relaxation massage is to reduce stress , promote overall wellness , relax muscles, diminish pain, and move body fluids (such as blood) to nourish cells and help remove waste products.
Specific goals for relaxation massage include:
(If you want to see videos of specific techniques, go to What Can I Expect in a First Visit?  and scroll down to "Some typical techniques.")
|Style/Commercial names||Common Techniques|
Clinical styles of massage differ from relaxation because they focus on therapeutic goals (for example releasing muscle spasms or strengthening or stretching specific muscles affected by an injury). They use more specific manipulation of the muscle and/or surrounding connective tissue and may address other systems in the body such as the lymphatic, circulatory, and nervous systems.
Specific goals for clinical massage include:
|Style/Commercial name||Common Techniques|
Levine, Andrew S., and Levine, Valerie J. (1999). The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House
Sherman, Karen J., Dixon, Marion W., Thompson, Diana and Cherkin, Daniel. (2006). Development of a Taxonomy to Describe Massage Treatments for Musculoskeletal Pain. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 6, 24.
Werner, Ruth. (2008). A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology, Fourth Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Yates, John. (2004). A Physician's Guide to Therapeutic Massage, Third Edition. Ontario, Canada: Curties-Overzet Publications, Inc.