What is massage therapy?

Ever wondered about massage etiquette, what type of massage you need to book yourself in for, or where the art and science of rubbing down aching muscles originated? Diana Carolin is here to help with a series of massage inspired articles. Let’s start with the basics.

Massage is an intuitive healing art that has been around for millennia. It is based on our instinct to rub areas that hurt. More formally, massage therapy is manual manipulation of soft body tissues (muscle, connective tissue, tendons and ligaments) to enhance a person’s health and well-being. There are many types of massage therapy and equally many reasons to go for a massage – like to reduce stress and anxiety, relax your muscles, rehabilitation for injuries, reducing pain, or to promote overall health and wellness.

The History of Massage Therapy

The oldest written record of massage dates back nearly 4 000 years. It was found in a Chinese medical text, Con-Fu of the Toa-Tse which was penned around 1800 BC. These early accounts detailed the application of massage techniques for therapeutic purpose. The word ‘massage’ comes from the Arabic root “mass’h” which means to touch, knead or squeeze. Many believe that massage therapy is the precursor to all other forms of manual therapy; including physical therapy, chiropractic and orthopaedics.

Hippocrates of Cos (460 to 380 B.C.), who is generally accepted as the ‘father of medicine’ wrote in his memoirs: “The physician must be experienced in many things but assuredly also in rubbing (anatripsis); for things that have the same name have not always the same effects. For rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose and loosen a joint that is too rigid.” The Romans continued the Greek tradition culminating in the learnings and teachings of Galen (130 – 201 AD). Galen reveals in his book Hygiene how deeply his feelings were towards massage and his disdain for those who would lower the standards of the profession. Upon overhearing a derogatory slur about his beloved profession, he wrote”: “These are all wanton witticisms, not at all befitting a man learned in so august an art.” Unfortunately, this stereotype is a social stigma that has carried on to this day.


The role of a massage therapist

A great massage therapist will be skilled and intuitive, polite and professional in their behaviour. They will be trained specifically in a certain style of massage therapy. They will use a firm pressure and have a natural feel for the body and muscles. You can tell immediately whether a massage therapist has a good touch or not. A massage therapist’s role is to manipulate soft tissue and create a feeling of well-being. They are not to diagnose any problems, and must refer you to a specialist or doctor if there is any suspicion of a potential issue. Before even starting your massage the therapist should ask you about your health and if you have any allergies or are on medication, as well as if you have had any recent injuries. Tell the therapist where the problem areas are before the massage to ensure that you get the full benefit of your treatment. The massage therapist is to provide a professional, clean, quiet and safe environment in which you can relax.

You should be asked how long you would like the treatment for, when booking an appointment. Generally a 30 minute massage is for the back, neck and shoulders or just the legs. If you want a full body massage that will be for 60 or 90 minutes and includes the arms, legs (front and back), the back, neck, shoulders and the feet – if you have a nice therapist. You can specify if you want the therapist to spend a longer time on a specific area. It is best to chat to your therapist and discuss what is needed and work out the time for the massage from there when making a booking.


Diana Carolin is a Cape Town based Massage Therapist who specialises in deep tissue and therapeutic massages for stress relief, back problems, injuries, general soft tissue maintenance and sports related muscular tension.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.