Arthritis Today

Types of Massage

There are many different massage techniques to choose from. Find out which one is best for you.


When you hear the word massage, you may think of lying on a cushioned table in a softly lit treatment room at an upscale day spa while a therapist gently kneads your sore muscles and strokes your skin with scented oils. Or, you may think of a sweaty football player having his sore muscles roughly pounded by a trainer in the locker room after a game. Both images are accurate. Massage therapy can be relaxing and soothing, or rough and intense, depending on the type of massage involved.

Massage is an umbrella term covering many different techniques and healing philosophies. In general, massage is manipulation of the body’s skin, muscles and connective tissues, usually with the hands, but also with mechanical tools applied to the body’s surface. You may seek massage from a licensed, trained massage therapist, but you may also massage your own sore joints and muscles with your hands or massage tools.

Massage often is used to relieve common symptoms of many types of arthritis: reducing pain and stiffness, easing anxiety, improving range of motion in joints, and promoting more restful sleep.

“Massage can result in a significant reduction in pain” for people with all types of arthritis, says Tiffany Field, PhD, a research psychologist at the University of Miami Medical School. Any type of full-body massage therapy that involves moderate pressure, including self-massage, should help relieve arthritis pain and ease tension, Field says.

Field emphasizes that moderate pressure is key, to stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin that convey signals to the brain to alleviate pain and release beneficial, stress-reducing neurochemicals like serotonin. “We’ve found that light pressure in massage is arousing, not relaxing. With light pressure, the heart rate goes up, the blood pressure goes up. Moderate pressure stimulates relaxation, the heart rate goes down, the blood pressure goes down,” she says.

People with arthritis who experience chronic symptoms may consider using massage therapy regularly, even daily use of self-massage, to help manage their pain and stiffness, or to promote better sleep that can in turn relieve pain in muscles and joints, Field notes.

Main Types of Massage

Massage is an ancient form of pain and stress relief practiced by most worldwide cultures. These techniques may involve not only physical manipulation of the body’s tissues, but also relaxation techniques. Massage may involve use of heat and cold applications to the skin, or the use of oil or lotion to ease gliding of hands or tools against the skin.

Here’s a brief overview of the many types of massage therapy. Be sure to tell your massage therapist that you have arthritis, and point out particular joints that are affected, prior to your session. Before getting any type of massage, consult your doctor to make sure massage is safe for your arthritis and any other health conditions you may have.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is the most common type of massage, and what many people think of when they hear the term “massage.”  Swedish massage involves long, fluid stroking of muscles and tissues, and is meant to reduce soreness and stiffness in muscles and joints, to reduce anxiety and to improve circulation. Swedish massage involves five basic strokes: effleurage (sliding or gliding of hands across skin), petrissage (kneading of muscles), tapotement (rhythmic tapping of knuckles or fingers against skin), friction (moving across fibers) and vibration or shaking of the body. Therapists may adjust pressure according to your sensitivity and typically use oil or lotion.

Deep Tissue Massage

Deep tissue massage focuses on manipulation of both top and deeper layers of muscles and tissues, often requiring intense, focused pressure by the therapist. Deep tissue massage is designed to address severe tension or pain in the muscles and connective tissues. Deep tissue massage may cause lingering soreness, so it might be inappropriate for some people with arthritis.

Hot Stone Massage

Hot stone massage is a massage therapy offered in many day spas that involves placing smooth, heated stones on your back as you lie on your stomach. The hot stones send soothing heat to the muscles and tissues, releasing tension and promoting relaxation. Typically, therapists knead your muscles by hand in addition to placing hot stones on your skin. Other forms involve cold stones, which may help sore muscles from exercise-related injuries or swelling. Some therapists may use both hot and cold stones for contrast or for different healing purposes.

Ayurvedic Massage

Ayurveda is an Indian natural health philosophy that blends yoga, massage, meditation and herbs. Ayurvedic massage is also known as abhyanga, and involves a full-body massage in addition to using aromatic oils chosen for purported spiritual healing properties.


One of many massage techniques that originated in Asian countries, Anma is a Japanese massage that involves kneading of the muscles and other soft tissues. Anma uses no oils. Anma is based on the idea that an energy flow in the body can be disrupted or blocked, causing illness and pain. Anma practitioners believe that massaging the muscles and tissues can restore this flow and the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

Thai Massage

Thai massage combines massage with placement of the body in yoga-like positions during the session. Thai massage techniques may vary between practitioners or the regions in Thailand from which they came. Some involve more flexibility stretching, while others focus on applying pressure to the muscles and joints.

Lomi Lomi

Lomi lomi massage originated in Hawaii and is practiced in many countries throughout the Pacific Ocean region (Polynesia). Lomi lomi is considered a healing practice that may involve diet, prayer, meditation and other health techniques in addition to massage of muscles and tissues.

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release aims to relieve pain by manipulating the fascia, connective tissues that surround muscles, blood vessels and nerves. During myofascial release, a therapist stretches and releases those connective tissues by gently rolling the skin back and forth on the back, legs and other areas of the body. Usually, no oils, lotions or massage tools are used.


Reflexology is an alternative Asian healing practice based on a belief that pressure on particular areas of the hands and feet will spur healing in other parts of the body. For example, pressing on the person’s big toe is believed to heal pain or injuries in the brain. Reflexology is meant to promote not only pain relief or healing, but also to reduce stress and anxiety.


Rolfing is similar to myofascial release, and is part of a healing philosophy called structural integration. Invented by Ida P. Rolf in the mid-20th century, rolfing involves the practitioner moving the body into certain positions and manipulating fascia tissues. Rolfing aims not only to promote pain relief and relaxation, but to restore posture and range of motion.


Self-massage is kneading your own sore joints, pressure points or muscles using your hands, knuckles, elbows or massage tools. Massage tools may be mechanized to offer heat or vibration, or you can create your own aids with household objects like tennis balls, says Field. Massaging hard-to-reach areas like your back may be difficult, but self-massage works well for sore feet, knees, calves, hands, neck or arms.


Shiatsu is a Japanese massage technique widely performed in the United States. Shiatsu therapists apply pressure to specific points of the body using the fingers and palms in continuous, rhythmic motions. Like other Asian massage and healing philosophies, shiatsu is thought to restore the flow of qi, or healthy energy, in the body. No oils are used. Usually, you remain totally clothed during shiatsu. Shiatsu pillows and devices are marketed widely and purport to offer shiatsu-type pressure to various areas of the body, like the neck.

Trigger Point Massage

Trigger point massage is designed to relieve pain in particular areas of the body by applying pressure or vibration into myofascial trigger points. Trigger point therapy that includes injections into the trigger points should only be performed in a clinical setting, such as a doctor’s office, or physical therapy or chiropractic office. Trigger points are points in the muscles where knots may form, and the pinpointed pressure is designed to relax those knots and ease pain. A 2002 study in American Family Physician, the medical journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, concluded that trigger point therapy using injections of numbing agents like lidocaine were very effective for chronic musculoskeletal pain relief, but other trigger point techniques do not involve use of needles.

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