Massage Therapy Modalities: Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is the most traditional form of Western massage, and for many in the United States, it’s the image associated with massage. Swedish massage, or classic massage as it called in some countries, is a relatively gentle massage form focused on the body’s superficial layers. It is provided to promote general relaxation and well-being and sometimes for relief for symptoms associated with health conditions. Swedish massage is known to promote circulation. Among the areas of research: the potential of massage to improve blood pressure and other vital signs. In short, it’s gaining a reputation as more than just a stress-buster.

There are five basic strokes: effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, friction, and vibration. Petrissage refers to kneading motions, effleurage to stroking – the massage technique one may associate most strongly with Swedish massage and with the accompanying relaxation.

Swedish massage is generally practiced with the client or patient lying on a massage table with draping in place of outer clothing. Massage therapists use massage oils and may incorporate elements such as aroma to contribute to relaxation and wellness. Swedish massage may be practiced in spa settings or clinical settings. Many massage therapists provide sessions in their own homes and/ or travel to clients’ homes. Franchises are another common setting. Sessions are often an hour in length. Sessions performed for health benefits may be significantly shorter.

Many massage techniques are based in part on Swedish massage, so it provides a foundation even if career goals will require multiple modalities. For example, from Swedish massage, one may progress to deeper massage focused on the muscles of different parts of the body. Chair massage can use Swedish massage technique, adapted for practicality. Prenatal massage is often based off Swedish massage, but is designed to maximize symptom relief as well as ensure safety. Another variant is hot stone massage where hot basalt stones are incorporated into the session.

Massage itself is an ancient practice. The practice of codifying it is more recent. While the name used widely in the United States pays homage to Sweden, a French vocabulary is used – and it may be more appropriate to credit the codification to a person of Dutch ancestry (

Learning to Practice Swedish Massage

Massage is a licensed profession in virtually all parts of the United States. To practice Swedish massage, an individual will need to enroll in a massage school that meets the licensing requirements of his or her state. An exception is made for professionals who are already licensed in a profession that includes massage within the scope of practice. In this case, the professional will need sufficient training to perform massage competently but will not have to meet requirements for a second license. Some health professionals choose to have a second license (for example, RN and Licensed Massage Therapist).

States set minimum requirements for massage programs between 500 and 1,000 hours. A course of study may focus primarily on Swedish massage but will include other techniques as well. In addition to massage techniques, the student will develop knowledge of basic sciences and will learn to practice the profession responsibly with clients who may or may not have diagnosed medical conditions. Programs typically include courses in anatomy and physiology, indications and contraindications of massage, modesty and draping, and legalities and ethics. Students will learn to apply proper body mechanics. Massage students will learn about hygiene practices in the massage room. Hands-on practice is an important component. Students typically practice first on fellow students and later on members of the public. Schools commonly have associated massage clinics.

The initial program may have more of a focus on spa techniques or more of a focus on therapies used in clinical settings. Massage students receive some instruction in providing massage to special populations. They may choose to pursue this further through continuing education. They may, for example, pursue training in safe and effective massage for elderly patients or patients with cancer. As an expert from Day Break Geriatric Massage Institute told Massage Magazine, geriatric massage differs from Swedish massage in the total experience of the therapy session and not just the massage strokes ( The effleurage and petrissage, though, don’t get left behind!

A prospective massage therapist can expect to take a licensing examination. Most jurisdictions utilize the MBLEx. Candidates will need a basic understanding of multiple massage and bodywork modalities. Board certification through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork entails a more difficult examination.

Massage Therapy Research

Research in the benefits of Swedish massage is varied. One recent study focused on blood glucose in children ( Others have focused on the effects of Swedish massage on blood pressure in adult populations.

Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have demonstrated that Swedish massage can alter biological markers of immune response as well as hormones associated with stress (

Still other research focuses on the potential of Swedish massage to decrease anxiety or increase well-being during specific situations – like when patients are facing the stress of the ICU (