I’ve been asked this a number of times when people have called me to enquire about booking in a massage treatment. I explain the different types of massage we offer and invariably the question comes up what’s the difference between Aromatherapy and Swedish massage? Some would say not an awful lot – with Swedish you use an unscented medium – generally a carrier oil, such as grapeseed oil, which is very nondescript in terms of smell. However, I would beg to differ, there are more differences than that. I’ll outline the two below to illustrate my point.
What is Swedish Massage?
The word “massage” originates from many different languages. In Latin “massa” means “that which forms a lump”, with massage seen as a technique for removing “lumpiness” of the body and making it smoother. In Greek, massein means “to knead” and kneading is one of the key movements in massage therapy. In French “masser” means “to rub” and the fundamentals of all massage is rubbing the skin and tissues. In Arabic, “mass” means “to touch or feel” – again fundamental elements of massage. Swedish massage is that branch of massage which involves a combination of different movements or techniques, ranging from stroking (effleurage) to invigorating friction.
Techniques of Swedish Massage
Effleurage is from the French “effleurer” which means to touch lightly. It involves gentle, sweeping, relaxing stroking movements. Pressure can be varied to suit the recipient. It is used at the beginning of the massage (to introduce the touch of the massage therapist) and at the end of the massage. The aim is to warm, soothe and relax the tissues and muscles and to improve circulation.
Again another French word derived from “pétrir” which means to rub or knead. This movement involves greater friction than effleurage and is used to manipulate tissues and muscles. Hands and fingers of the therapist are used to break down tension and tightness of muscle. This technique usually applies to larger muscle areas and is not recommended for use on bony or delicate areas.
Various petrissage/kneading and friction movements
This is a form of petrissage and is usually introduced after effleurage, once the tissues and muscles have been warmed up. It involves a cycle of lifting (pulling tissue away and off the bone), compressing and then releasing it using alternate hands. For releasing additional tension a twisting or wringing movement is recommended. Pressure is built gradually and only to the extent that it can be tolerated by the client. Applying the right movement and body weight is key to making the technique effective and to minimising joint and muscle fatigue on the part of the massage therapist. By kneading and compressing tissue against tissue suppleness and elasticity are improved and tension and stiffness are released. Stiffness of tissue and muscle is often caused by the build-up of toxins, such as lactic acid. Kneading helps to release and break down these toxins, enabling the muscles to work more efficiently.
Friction or rubbing movements also improve circulation and release lymph and toxin congestion. The term originates from the Latin word fricare which means to rub or rub down. Tissue is compressed against bone and the technique is used for close work on a small area or for specific zones of tightness around joints. Thumb pads or balls of fingers can be rubbed up and down or held in a static position, so that only the flesh moves. Small rubbing movements muscle on muscle or muscle against bone will generate heat, improve circulation, stimulate nerves and loosen tight muscles. Knots of tension where energy can be trapped are released. Whilst small movements can trace the length of the muscle, cross-fibre movements are also allowed where the therapist works across the muscle at right angles to the fibres. Cross-fibre friction stretches the muscles and release muscular tension. This particular technique is popular with sports massage therapists and physiotherapists in the treatment of injuries (as working on one section of the muscle can ease and stretch the rest of that muscle, thus avoiding direct contact with the place of injury or inflammation). Friction can be painful on very tight muscles and so caution should be exercised in using this technique.
These are brisk, invigorating and stimulating strokes. The word is derived from the Latin percutere which means to hit (per = through, quatere = shake). Swedish massage is well known for its chopping motions, called hacking, using the straight edge of the little finger side of each hand and alternately striking down with each hand onto the flesh. Other percussion techniques are beating (using fists, with knuckles down, gentle hammering of the tissue without causing pain), pounding (similar to beating, but using the outer little finger edge of each fist to gently “strike” the tissue), cupping (fingers extended with palms down, but cupped to create a pocket of air or vacuum when hitting the tissue, sounds like the clip-clopping of horse’s hooves) and finally tapotement. Tapotement is a gentle form of percussion, which uses only the fingertips. The word comes from tapoter which is French for “tap”. Fingers alternate in tapping the tissue and is suited for more delicate or bony areas, such as those found on the face. In contrast beating and pounding are only to be used on fleshy areas. Percussion is used to invigorate, stimulate and wake up the client. If a client prefers an invigorating massage rather than a relaxing one, the massage should feature more of these percussion movements than other techniques. The physiological effects of percussion are to improve local and overall circulation, improve skin and muscle tone, warm muscles, break down fatty deposits in fleshy areas (cellulite reduction) and to invigorate nerves.
This not a classical Swedish technique but is often added. Vibration can be manual or mechanical. The aim is to make the muscle tremble or quiver to release tension and tightness (literally the muscle is “surprised” into relaxing). It can be carried out manually using the whole palm or just the fingertips. Movements are brisk and can be either up and down or side to side. Palms or fingertips never lose contact with the flesh throughout. Vibration is used when muscles are extremely tight and do not respond well to petrissage or friction movements. Vibration can be soothing or stimulating. Other non-Swedish techniques include passive movements, such as ankle or toe rotations, moving the joint through its natural range of movement to improve mobility or release tension. Massage movements are always carried out in the direction of the heart, this helps venous return and lymphatic drainage. Movements are slow and gentle at first, but then pick up vigour and pressure, whilst maintaining an even flow and rhythm throughout. Contact is maintained with the client (with at least one hand) throughout the treatment for reassurance and a smooth experience.
Aromatherapy differs from Swedish massage in a number of subtle but distinct ways. The first obvious difference is that a few drops of essential oils are mixed into the main carrier oil, such as grapeseed, sweet almond or jojoba, or alternatively are blended into a massage wax.
The blend of essential oils will depend on the requirements of the massage – whether intended to relax, detoxify or invigorate. Lavender and bergamot are known for their calming properties, whilst grapefruit, lemon or peppermint are great for detoxification and eucalyptus and orange are good for stimulation and invigoration. However, an oil can have more than one purpose or benefit – for example, eucalyptus is a good antibacterial oil and has analgesic properties to help with pain relief (same applies to purifying frankincense, which is antibacterial and can help clear skin of blemishes).
Another difference is the pace of the massage. Aromatherapy is intended to be more languorous and more fluid. It is important for the massage to be conducted at a slower pace so that the client can experience the full benefit of the oils seeping into the skin and into the olfactory organs. As a result, many of the firmer techniques of percussion and vibration are omitted from the massage. The emphasis is more on effleurage, kneading and some gentle friction movements.
Getting the Right Treatment for Your Needs
If you have a specific requirement as a client for what you want to get out of the massage, it is important that you convey this in advance of your appointment to the therapist. She/he can then make the correct recommendation on what oil and technique to use. That way you get the best out of any treatment.
It may be that one treatment will not be enough, and a course of treatments will be presented as an option. Usually programmes or packages are designed to be cheaper to ensure that you return to get the most out of your complementary therapy. The cumulative effects of massage and of any therapy are undeniable. Your mood will improve, your health (especially your immune system) and mindset will also benefit tremendously.