Five Myths About Swedish Massage Debunked

Swedish massage gets a bad rap these days, and I have decided it is my mission to rehabilitate it! (And not just because my grandmother was Swedish ;-) )

Swedish Massage is not Swedish

It’s Dutch.

(My mother was Dutch, so I’m going to love this modality no matter who wins the debate ;-) )

The modality we call Swedish massage is often attributed to Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish educator and physical therapist. Ling was a pioneer in the fields of physical fitness and wellness, and he developed a system of calisthenics and gymnastics that was widely respected and practiced. His work in this area influenced what would become the field of Western massage, but the founder was actually a Dutch doctor named Johann Georg Mezger who wrote a doctoral exam about the therapeutic use of various “friction methods.” This dissertation, written in 1868, became the basis of Swedish massage.

Swedish massage is not JUST a relaxation massage.

As though we live in a world where everyone is so relaxed and free of stress that it would be pointless for you to spend time and money on JUST a relaxation massage!

It is true, Swedish massage targets the nervous system far more than the muscular system. But in my experience, far more people are anxious and stressed in far more debilitating ways than have serious injuries to their muscular system that can adequately be addressed by a massage therapist working within her scope of practice.

Am I right?

Swedish massage can’t feel deep and powerful.

Swedish massage is often disparaged within the massage industry as a “fluff and buff,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Swedish massage is largely performed with long, broad strokes, deep kneading strokes, and percussion-like strokes. These strokes can be performed with as much depth and firmness as you desire, and you should always feel free to let your massage therapist know you would like more pressure if your massage is feeling too “fluffy.”

Another way Swedish massage can feel deep and powerful is in the way it can help you feel your body as an integrated, pleasurable whole. So many of us experience our bodies in negative and dissociated ways; we don’t like our bodies, we don’t derive pleasure from our bodies, we experience our bodies as the sum of a bunch of imperfect parts: hips (too big), stomach (too flabby), legs (too skinny) … and on and on. With its long, flowing strokes connecting one “part” of our bodies to other “parts,” and with the relaxing, pleasurable sensations it brings, Swedish massage can go a long way toward healing the ways so many of us have become disembodied.

The main therapeutic effect of Swedish massage is increasing circulation and flushing out toxins.

It is true that Swedish massage increases circulation, but so does walking around the block. If increased circulation is your goal, you will do far better to get moving—which, frankly, is the very best thing you can do for your overall health.

There are lots of good reasons to get a Swedish massage, but increased circulation isn’t one of them.

As for “flushing out toxins,” this is a very common notion—that our bodies are full of toxins that can be flushed through various interventions—but it isn’t really evidence-based. The human body is quite miraculous and has a number of systems for dealing with the byproducts of our physiology that may be “toxic.” There is really no need to supplement these systems.

In any case, as pointed out above, if increased circulation boosts your body’s ability to rid itself of toxic by-products—well, as much as I would love to sell you a massage, taking a brisk walk is definitely cheaper.

Swedish massage is pointless because no pain, no gain.

This notion gets back to the issue of which anatomical system the Swedish massage addresses: the nervous system or the muscular system. “No pain, no gain” type massages are directed at the muscular system—i.e., this or that muscle group is “tight,” or has a “knot,” and those “defects” in the musculature must be “loosened up” or “broken up” through sharp, deep, targeted pressure. This is what we often refer to as deep tissue massage.

Now I want to be clear: I do not subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory of massage, even when it comes to deep tissue massage targeted at your muscular system. There is nothing therapeutic a massage therapist can do to your body, within the proper scope of her practice, that should leave you bruised the next day. There are, of course, massage therapists who disagree with me, but my evidence-based practice is to try my best to leave no bruises.

We can leave that whole “no pain, no gain” debate behind, though, because the therapeutic effect of a Swedish massage is not primarily on your muscles. The primary therapeutic effect of Swedish massage is on your nervous system, in that it can help calm down your fight or flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) and help induce a rest and digest response (parasympathetic). Even if there is a legitimate place for muscle pain in deep tissue massage, it is indisputably inappropriate for a massage therapist in any way to intentionally effect direct nerve pain. (Of course, all pain is “nerve pain,” but that is a topic for another blog!)

So, I hope that clears up some misconceptions about Swedish massage, and if you are in need of relief from anxiety and stress, I hope you will consider booking a session soon!

Do you have any other questions about Swedish massage? What do you do to deal with anxiety and stress? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Marta RoseComment