Demystifying the Swedish and Deep Tissue Massage

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As a graduate of the Swedish Institute and a practicing licensed Massage Therapist for over 15 years, one of the highlights of my career occurred last June. I was invited to join the team at Living Proof Nutrition Strength and Pilates, as their first on-site massage therapist. Through my experience interacting and treating a clientele with a wide array of fitness and exercise practices, these past 7 months at Living Proof have inspired me to write my first article on a question that seems to plague almost everyone interested in massage therapy; what is a Swedish massage vs. deep tissue therapy? I’m sure by the time you have finish reading this article the difference will be clear.

One of the most surprising things that I have found after so many years of massage practice is that most people who walk into my practice don’t know the difference between a Swedish massage and deep tissue therapy. Most of the assumption lies in that a Swedish massage is soft and light and that deep tissue is hard. And, although there may be some truth in the latter the reality is that they are both so much more than people think. The truth is that the general public doesn’t really know what a deep tissue massage is anymore than they know what a Swedish massage is; and once a client is informed of what each modality entails they realize that they don’t really want a deep tissue after all.

So for the sake of clarification I will try to demystify both. For the most part when someone hears Swedish massage they immediately assume that it involves long, soft and light strokes and it’s for mere relaxation and for people who are highly sensitive to touch. When the term deep tissue comes up they imagine a hard pressure accompanied by strong relentless hands that will melt their knots away. So I will try to eliminate the first misconception, Swedish is not a soft light massage; it is a massage that can be applied with light, medium or strong pressure.

  1. Effleurage is the most popular of the 5 strokes. These are the long gliding strokes that most people are familiar with, these strokes don’t necessarily have to be soft or light but they do have to be long because the objective is to initiate circulatory movement as well as promote lymphatic movement to detoxify the body. This stroke allows the therapist to warm the muscle tissue to prevent injury to the fibers making this stroke vital to the Swedish experience.
  2. Petrissage is a kneading of the muscle belly that emulates the pumping action of muscle when it is exercised. It is designed to pump blood into the muscle which loads the fibers with oxygen, very necessary in helping muscles that may be fatigued or sore.
  3. Friction, is performed when the muscle has been sufficiently warmed and it is designed to go over areas of muscle that have become ischemic (lack of oxygen) these are areas that most people refer to as knots. The movements are short with strong pressure over the knotted area with the intent to break down the adhesion by pushing blood and oxygen into the tissue.
  4. Tapotement is brisk tapping or percussive movements usually performed on areas of muscles that have been overstretched beyond their natural resting place. What I mean is that all muscles have a point where they insert from the tendon to the bone from each end of the insertion. Each muscle throughout the body has a particular distance that allows for balance and proper structure. When muscles become over stretched they lose their balance and they compromise the posture of the entire body. An example of this would be kyphosis which is a severe rounding of the back, which looks like a small hump on the upper back. In this case the chest muscles (pectoralis major) are short, constricted and forcing the traps to stretch and become weak, tapotement is used to treat this kind of weakness. By thumping the muscle of the back like a drum this causes the muscle to contract and by stretching the opposing muscle (pectoralis major) this allows the trap to regain some of its natural resting place.
  5. Vibration is used in Swedish for pain management. Therapist uses vibration in areas where there may be nerve irritation and it is hard to massage because the pain is unbearable. Vibration has been used effectively for people who suffer from Sciatica. But it can also be used to desensitize muscle to allow for deeper strokes. Vibration can also help dissipate ticklishness which is a form of tension in some clients making it possible to massage areas that are hard to get at otherwise.

As you can see the Swedish doesn’t have to be a soft light massage unless it is specifically requested by the client. The pressure of the session can be modified depending on the need and pain threshold of the client. All together these five strokes make up the Swedish massage, thus, to increase circulation, improve lymphatic movement, oxygenize muscle, break down adhesions, shorten overstretched muscles and manage pain.

The deep tissue massage uses some of the same strokes as Swedish however the objective is different. Deep tissue isn’t done to all the muscles of the body in one session. The reason for this is that there wouldn’t be enough time to do this in an hour.  Usually the therapist picks two areas that the client has complained about. The objective of the deep tissue is first (as in Swedish) to warm the muscle, once this is accomplished than we begin by stripping the muscle. Muscle stripping consists of slow consistent pressure over the chronic area. The therapist goes over the length of the muscle repeatedly where the adhesions has formed. They may use their thumbs, fist or even elbow to ensure that the pressure is deep. The idea is to go from layer to layer of muscle until we penetrated deeply into the belly. This consistent pressure may be painful to some and may even leave bruising. Once the area has become pink which indicates the blood has saturated the muscle the therapist stops and moves on to the next area. Deep tissue is recommended for clients who suffer from chronic issues that have escalated through the years. It is particularly recommended for repetitive stress injuries; cause by movements that are continuously repeated at work at, home, or out of postural habit and can no longer be ignored because they have limited the range of motion of the muscle or the client is in chronic pain.

I guess the question is why knowing these differences matter in Massage Therapy? They matter because it allows the client to make an informed decision about the kind of treatment they may want. But more so because knowing what kind of treatment you need is the first step in addressing whatever condition is preventing you from living a pain free existence. And more importantly, also know that weakness in muscle can be addressed to some degree with exercise or physical therapy but when there are adhesions in muscle fiber that prevent you the client from truly reaping the benefits of exercise or therapy those adhesions cannot be resolved with these modalities and simply because there is no exercise that can target an adhesion. Massage, which in itself is a passive form of exercise, (because it emulates the pumping action that occurs in muscle when it engages), allows the therapist to directly target the area that is constricting the muscles, or maybe even the nerve. Whether you decide to get a Swedish or a Deep Tissue know that the benefits of both treatments can not only bring you relief but the benefits of massage itself can enhance your health and work as preventive care to protect your immune system, prevent, injury, and relieve a multiple of conditions that interfere with everyday living.

As you can see once demystified deep tissue is a much more focalized technique quite different from Swedish massage. I hope after reading this you have a better sense of what both therapies offer, but more so, now that you know the difference don’t be afraid to ask for a strong Swedish massage if that’s what you like.

copyright © 2015 Yvette Morales