Swedish Massage: Highly Underrated

By Laura Allen
April 5, 2017

Swedish Massage: Highly Underrated

By Laura Allen
April 5, 2017

There are dozens of massage modalities, and new ones seem to crop up all the time. People take something they've learned, put their own spin on it, and give it a new name. Sometimes, through effective marketing and teaching numerous CE classes, it becomes well-known. Throw in the word bodywork, and suddenly that includes much more. ABMP's website lists more than 350 modalities of massage and bodywork. The truth is, the majority of Western massage modalities were born out of one thing — Swedish massage.

An Underrated Technique

Swedish massage is highly underrated. I've met thousands of massage therapists, and many have said "I do __ massage (fill in the blank)." It almost seems like people don't want to admit to just doing Swedish massage. I sometimes hear therapists talking about someone else, saying things like "She only does Swedish massage," as if there is something wrong with that. Many times when I'm attending a class or convention, I hear therapists asking each other the question, "What type of massage do you do?" When someone asks me that question, I always say "the good kind."

People often refer to Swedish as relaxation massage — and what's wrong with that? Everybody needs to relax. Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress, and they're also the cause of stress. A person who has never thought of themselves as having a particularly stressful life can hear words like "You've got cancer," and immediately, they're more stressed than they ever imagined. Relaxation relieves stress. A good Swedish massage is very relaxing. It's not rocket science.

Studies Say ...

One of the largest massage studies to date, a  2011 study of 401 subjects with low back pain, concluded that massage may be an effective treatment, with benefits lasting at least six months after receiving weekly massage for 10 weeks.1

The subjects were divided into three groups: those receiving relaxation massage, those receiving structural massage, and those who received the usual protocol of physical therapy combined with medication. Both types of massage were found to be more effective than the usual protocol, with no clinical meaningful difference between the two types of massage.

A 2015 study of 66 subjects found that 25-minute Swedish massage, performed twice a week for four weeks, showed significant effects in reducing stress occupational stress of nurses. The study concluded that massage is a valuable noninvasive method, be used for nurses in intensive care units to reduce their stress, promote mental health, and prevent the decrease in quality of nursing work life.2

Swedish massage of the back, neck, and chest was shown to reduce systolic lood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate, vital signs associated with anxiety in otherwise healthy women. The 2016 study concluded that Swedish massage therapy was useful for decreasing the vital signs associated with anxiety in healthy women.3

Dr. Tiffany Field and co-researchers at the Touch Research Institute (located at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine), have published numerous studies on the positive effects of infant massage, including on preterm babies and cocaine-exposed infants. This demonstrates efficacy in reducing complications, stress-hormone levels, stress behaviors and increasing weight gain, among other benefits.4, 5, 6

AMTA in Agreement

The American Massage Therapy Association has approved 15 position statements over the past decade that are supported by research, including statements that massage is helpful for improving general health and wellness; managing fibromyalgia symptoms; improving sleep; relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety; effective for low back pain and tension headaches; and relieving pain and stress; among other things.7

Many of the studies referenced refer to Swedish as the relaxation massage. There are numerous other studies indexed on PubMed demonstrating that Swedish massage is therapeutic. Swedish massage is as valuable as "medical massage."

In fact, nobody knows what medical massage truly is, other than "massage performed for medical purposes." There is no legally agreed upon definition of it, although some associations, documents, and textbooks attempt to define it.

Orthopedic massage (assessment techniques rather than a specific modality), myofascial massage, neuromuscular therapy, oncology massage, or any other massage performed with the intent to relieve pain, treat a medical condition, or restore limited range of motion could be considered medical massage, but  I prefer the term "therapeutic."

All massage is therapeutic. Hopefully, therapists doing rehabilitative techniques don't dive into deeper work without doing some Swedish massage techniques to warm the muscle.

Massage regulatory boards generally define massage as the manipulation of soft tissue without getting into the specifics of modalities, other than ruling on what falls into that category or is exempt from it. You get the same license to do any type of massage.

While it is admirable to go beyond Swedish massage and obtain further education in other techniques and modalities, avoid the temptation to feel too superior about that. "Certification" is also not legally defined.

One CE provider can teach a 10-hour class in something they call an advanced technique and give a certification, while another can teach 100 hours of the same and give a certification. It's not a very meaningful term.

There is also nothing wrong with taking pride in giving a great Swedish massage, and choosing to make that your focus. "Medical" massage therapists should not look down their noses at the person who "only does Swedish massage," as there is a substantial body of research attesting to its value.

The therapist giving relaxation massage in a salon, franchise, or spa is performing a service that as just as therapeutic and valuable as the therapist doing rehabilitative work in a chiropractic office. Ego does not belong in the massage space. Don't underrate Swedish massage or the therapists who do it.


  1. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Kahn J, et al. "A comparison of the effects of 2 types of massage and usual care on chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial." Annals of Internal Medicine, 2011.
  2. Nazari F, Mirzamohamdai M, Yousefi H. "The effect of massage therapy on occupational stress of intensive Care Unit nurses." Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res, 2015; Jul-Aug;20(4):508-15.
  3. Gholami-Motlagh F, Jouzi M, Solemani B. "Comparing the effects of two Swedish massage techniques on the vital signs and anxiety of healthy women." Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res, 2016; Jul-Aug;21(4):402-9.
  4. Field T, Grizzle N, Scafidi F, et al. "Massage therapy for infants of depressed mothers." Infant Behavior and Development, 1996; 19:107-112.
  5. Wheeden A, Scafidi FA, Field T, et al. "Massage effects on cocaine-exposed preterm neonates." Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 1993; 143:18-322.
  6. Scafidi FA, Field TM, Schanberg SM, et al. "Massage stimulates growth in preterm infants: A replication." Infant Behavior and Development, 1990; 13:167-188.
  7. American Massage Therapy Association, Approved position statements. www.amtamassage.org/approved_position_statements.html.