Massage Terminology


How many times have been to a massage therapist, a doctors office, even your local mechanic and been told something in a language you don’t understand. Even though English was spoken, the words just made no sense to you. Like most people you politely smile, nod your head in agreement and leave wondering just exactly what he meant.

You may have done this because you did not want to look “stupid” in front of the person who was talking to you. You have probably heard this before, but it needs saying again – “There are no stupid questions!” Especially when it comes to your health. If you don’t understand what you are being told, ask for it to be repeated in a way that you can understand.

Professional people use a language all their own. Depending on what profession the person belongs to, dictates the language they use. When the professional is dealing with the general public, they sometimes forget that they need to use “laymans” terms in order to be understood. A good professional will take the time to make sure you understand what you are being told. They have to, if they want your business. If they are unwilling to make themselves clear to you, then it might be a good time to seek another opinion.

In the massage profession, a therapist is taught the specific terms used in massage. Once a massage therapist learns these terms, they tend to use them. One reason is so that there can be no confusion as to exactly what they are talking about. That is of course if they are talking to another massage therapist. Sometimes they forget that they are not always talking to someone who understands massage terminology.

In this age of the Internet and the Information Super Highway a lot of people are educating themselves. I believe this is an excellent thing to practice. The massage terminology I am going to list is not definitive, but only some of the more common terms. I will attempt to explain each one in plain English.

Massage Terminology:

Types Of Massage

  • Swedish Massage: One of the most common forms of massage therapy. It is a very relaxing and therapeutic form of bodywork.
  • Hot Stone Massage: A massage that uses basalt stones that are heated. They aide the therapist in providing deep penetrating heat to the muscles.
  • Deep Tissue Massage: A form of massage therapy that uses a lot of pressure to relieve muscle tension.
  • Sports Massage: A form of massage therapy designed for athletes. It’s more vigorous than a Swedish Massage.
  • Trigger Point Therapy: A form of massage therapy designed to release a specific type of knot in the muscle. (see “All Knotted Up” below)
  • Therapeutic or Medical Massage: A form of massage therapy designed to work specific muscles.
  • Seated Massage: A form of massage therapy that uses a specially designed chair for the bodywork.
  • Reflexology: A form of bodywork that uses pressure points in the feet, hands and ears to stimulate the corresponding body organs.
  • Pregnancy Massage: This is also referred as side lying massage. It is used for pregnant women (obviously) but also used for special circumstances. A client may be physically handicapped, or in pain that prevents him from lying face up or face down on the table.
  • Energy Work: This involves many different massage modalities. It comes from Eastern Medicine and the belief that there is more to the human body than what can be seen physically. Most of these modalities date back thousands of years. Western cultures and medicine are only just starting to realize that energy work is real, although inexplicable.
  • Different Strokes For Different Folks

  • Effleurage: A gliding stroke used by massage therapists. This is typically used at the beginning and end of the massage. It’s purpose is to warm the tissues by providing increased circulation.
  • Petrissage: A kneading stroke used by massage therapists. This stroke is designed to lift and knead the tissues. It helps in removing the metabolic wastes that have built up in muscle tissue. It also helps to draw new blood to the tissues.
  • Friction: Also referred as cross fiber friction. This stroke is most commonly used by the therapists fingers or thumbs. The therapist will sink into the muscle with his fingers, then rapidly move them back and forth across the muscle. This helps in breaking down tight knots that have built up in the muscle tissue.
  • Nerve Strokes: This is a form of effleurage that involves a light touch. It is usually done in a manner that is both light in touch and quick in movement. It’s purpose is to stimulate the area after it has been worked with other methods.
  • Tapotement: This is what you have seen in the movies. The boxer that lays on the table while some big burly guy appears to be beating on the boxers back. In reality there are many forms of tapotement, from light finger tapping to the heavy beating. This is generally used at the end of a massage session and it helps stimulate the tissues.
  • Stripping: This is a stroke used by massage therapist that is designed to help lengthen a muscle. Usually the therapist uses his thumbs and while applying pressure he glides the full length of the muscle that is being worked on.
  • All Knotted Up

    There are different terms for the different conditions of a muscle. These can vary wildly and mean different things to different people. You might hear your therapist say “That’s a ropey knot.” What he may be referring to is a long tight band of muscle. Two forms of knots that have definitive meanings are trigger points and tender points.

  • Trigger Points: There are several types of trigger points; active, latent, primary, and satellite. For the purpose of this article we are going to just call them trigger points. Basically a trigger point is a knot in the belly of a muscle that when pressed on, refers pain to a specific point in the body. Trigger points are knots that are in a constant state of contraction. Normal massage strokes will not “release” a trigger point. A massage therapist has to use direct pressure on the trigger point to interrupt the nerve impulse that is causing the muscle contraction.
  • Tender Points are similar to trigger points with the difference being a tender point does not refer pain when pressure is applied. The method for releasing a tender point is different also. The therapist must place the muscle in a passively contracted state until the tender point relaxes and dissipates.
  • Some Miscellaneous Terms

  • Fascia: is a layer of connective tissue. Fascia is found throughout the human body. Think of it as a nylon stocking wrapping everything in the body. This is what helps hold everything in its place.
  • Tendons: These connect the muscle to the bone.
  • Ligaments: These connect bones to bones.
  • Draping: A technique used to cover a client in order to protect the clients modesty.
  • Drape: The material used for draping, this can be a sheet, pillow case, towel, etc.
  • Face Cradle: The area where a client rests their face on a massage table.
  • Bolster: A specifically designed cushion to aide in the clients comfort while lying on the massage table.
  • Lotion, Oil, Gel: The lubricant used to aide the therapist in giving a massage.
  • Prone: This is the face down position when a client is on the massage table.
  • Supine: This is the face up position when a client is on the massage table.
  • As stated earlier, this is not a definitive list of massage terminology. These are some of the more common terms used by most massage therapists. The next time your massage therapist uses any of these terms; you will know what he is talking about. You can be proud that the power of educating yourself has paid off!


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