Historic Overview

Historic Overview of Massage and Related Therapies
by Peter J. LaGrasse, L.M.T.

Massage is defined as the application of a “scientific system of activities to the muscular structure of the human body for the purpose of improving muscle tone and circulation.”(1) Most massage therapists believe their therapy effects all soft tissue, such as fascia (muscle envelopes), tendons, joint capsules, blood and lymph, nerves, internal organs and skin.

Massage is said to benefit conditions of muscle spasm and tightness resulting in chronic back pain, fascia restraint limiting motion, scar tissue and adhesions, soft tissue trauma and swelling, inflammation of connective tissue, arthritis and pain.(2)
In another dimension, massage therapists believe they are effecting the psychological and emotional aspect of a person, mobilizing the body’s inner resources to cure itself.(3)

In yet another dimension, massage therapists believe Oriental massage influences the flow of Chi or vital essence, and treatments benefit the function of major organ systems within the body.(4)

For the public the question arises when facing a serious medical concern, such as hypertension or carpal tunnel syndrome, or back pain or sciatic pain, does one rush to the medical doctor, to the chiropractor, or to the massage therapist? This booklet is too short to answer a question of this scope. Instead, this booklet presents the basis of several therapies which as a whole comprise the physical medical system and the significance of massage within this system.

Ancient Babylonia, Assyria, China, India, Greece and Rome all practiced some form of massage. The famed Greek physician, Hippocrates, wrote numerous instruction on the nature and use of massage in 430 B.C.(5)

Western society forgot about massage, and indeed most of the advances of the Ancient World, during the Middle Ages (476-1450).(6) Individuals in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries wrote notable books about massage in England, France and Germany, but massage in the West was dormant until Per Henrik Ling of Sweden (1776-1839) started in 1813 to revive interest in what is now called Swedish Massage.

His followers published the Ling system after his death. Massage institutes spread throughout the world and include New York City’s Swedish Institute founded in 1916.

Dr. Johan Georg Mezger of Holland, during the second half of the 19th century, created international fame by using massage in his practice, particularly with Europe’s royalty. He advocated forceful (and painful) friction massage for sprains, and he designated the four strokes of massage: effleurage (stroke), friction, petrissage (kneading), and tapotement (gentle striking). (The fifth stroke used today is vibration.)

In 1900 Albert J. Hoffa published a book on massage in Germany which remains a basic text today.

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia, Penna., introduced massage to the U.S. with his 1870 treatise. Dr. O. Graham of Boston, Mass., published the first book in the U.S. on massage in 1884 and Douglas Graham also of Boston published a book in 1902 that finally awaked interest in massage. The great medical advances in bacteriology of Louis Pasteur were in full sway at this time. Some doctors were advocating massage while most were opposing massage, and also hydrotherapy and electrotherapy as akin to quackery.(5) Massage duties shifted from doctors to nurses and physical therapists, who in turn lost interest in the 1930s and 1940s. A remnant of massage therapist carried the thread of massage practice forward during this time period of disinterest until the realm of alternative health care began in the 1970s.(7)

Experiments with electricity were ongoing. In 1893, famed inventor Nicola Tesla published an article on the therapeutic benefits of high voltage, high frequency current.(8) Electrotherapeutics was taught at Tuft’s College Medical School, Boston.(8)

Mechanical vibrators, an important aspect of massage today, were also developed at the turn of the 20th century.(9) (10)

With the advent of World Wars massage for rehabilitation became a specialized practice called “physical therapy.” Physical therapy employed more machines, more testing, more exercise therapy, and less hands-on treatment. Physical therapists use high frequency electric currents to deliver heat directly to lesions (injuries) in deep tissue in the form of short wave, ultrasound and microwave therapy.(11)

Physical therapists also use transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) of muscles to manage pain. TENS is thought to interrupt pain impulses, increase endorphins (natural pain killers), and increase blood supply to the area, which encourages healing and reduces muscle spasms. (Similar claims are made for mechanical vibrators that are used by chiropractors and massage therapists.(10)(12))

In 1895 Daniel D. Parker of Iowa launched chiropractic by claiming to cure deafness with a spinal manipulation. Schools were started and Palmer published in 1910.

Traditional chiropractors concentrate on correcting deviant conditions of the spinal column, called subluxations. By so doing, chiropractors believe many health conditions can be corrected through the body’s normal healing process.

Other chiropractors treat muscle and joint problems anywhere on the body.(13)

Orthodox doctors of 1895 and of today do not accept that a spinal adjustment could cure deafness, as Palmer claimed it did. However, today, chiropractors theorize that cerebrospinal fluid pressure could be altered by an adjustment, with far-reaching consequences to the body.(13)

Osteopathy is yet another branch of medicine which was developed in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still. Osteopathy is founded on the theory that the body will heal itself of all disease so long as it is in correct mechanical adjustment. Stagnation of blood and lymph, from lesions, causes acidosis and irritated nerves which in turn affect the function of organs.

Osteopaths are trained similarly to physicians.

In the 1930s, Dr. William G. Sutherland, D.O., enhanced on the practice of osteopathy with the principles of Craniosacral Therapy. This therapy is based on adjustments in the cerebral spinal fluid by moving bones that make up the skull, and other subtle adjustments. Medical doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors and massage therapists may be trained in Craniosacral therapy.

Orthopedist James Cyriax, M.D. has contributed new meaning to massage with his texts: Orthopaedic Medicine, Diagnosis of Soft Tissue Lesions (1947) and Treatment by Manipulation, Massage and Injection (1944). Cyriax stressed the great therapeutic value of deep cross fiber friction massage technique.

Janet G. Travers, M.D. and David G. Simon, M.D. authored the two volume text: Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, the Trigger Point Manual (1983) laying out the basis for trigger point therapy used by massage therapists today.

Another modality of significance is Danish biologist Dr. Emil Vodder’s Manual Lymph Drainage developed in 1936 and published in Germany in 1978. This method of massage assists the body in returning lymph from the superficial surface of the body to the circulatory system.

The Oriental Influence on massage has been profound. AMMA, the Chinese and Korean form of massage; and Shiatsu, the Japanese form; are an intrinsic part of traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is a complete medical and philosophical system. Needles (acupuncture) are but one modality of TCM. These same needling points are pressure points in massage. They first appeared in written records in the 5th century, B.C. In the last three centuries B.C. the healing system was being developed as we know it today. TCM addresses systemic illness (diseases affecting the whole body). Pressure points are believed to effect basic bodily functions. Massage of this form is not directed solely to muscle tone or circulation of blood or lymph, but to balance and enhance the flow of Chi, the body’s vital life force, and blood.


1) N.Y.S. Education Law Sec. 7801
2) Howard A. Rusk, M.D., Rehabilitation Medicine, 2 Ed. 1964 p.93-4
3) Francis M. Tappan, Healing Massage Techniques, 2 Ed. 1988, p.35 ff.
4) Katsusuke Serizawa, M.D., Tsubo, Vital Points for Oriental Therapy, 1976 pp.29-38.
5) Joseph B. Rogoff, M.D., Manipulation, Traction and Massage, 2 Ed. (1980) pp.1-44
6) Mark Beck, The Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage (1988) p.6
7) Elliott Greene, M.A. “Massage Therapy,” as pub. in Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons (U.S. Gov. Printing Office, Dec. 1994) p.124
8) Frederick Finch Strong, M.D., High Frequency Currents 1908
9) Arnold Snow, M.D., Mechanical Vibration and its Therapeutic Application, 1904
10) Douglas W. Matheson, Ph.D., et al A Comparison of Vibration Massage and Ultrasound on Contusions 1989 Univ. of the Pacific. (“Both treatment modalities are effective with respect to pain, ultrasound was associated with greater initial effects while mechanical massage (vibration) yielded greater overall effects.”) Beck pp.231-232.
11) Rusk, pp.82-3
 12) Beck pp.231-232
 13) Simon Mills and Steven J. Finando, Alternatives in Healing (1988) p.19


© 2008 Peter J. LaGrasse
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