Hands on Help: Massage For Your Health

I Knead More..

thai massage

It's hard to believe my 4 months in Asia has come to a close.  While I absolutely loved Asia, I'm looking forward to the next 4 months in Europe and have had a blast exploring Belgrade, Serbia the last few days.  During my flight from Bangkok to Belgrade, I made a list of the things in Asia that I was happy to leave behind. The list was small, with humid heat coming in at number one.  It's so nice to walk out the door without immediately breaking into a heavy sweat! 

I also made a list of the things that I would miss (which was much longer) like fresh coconut water on every corner and 60-minute massages ranging in price from $5-30 USD. Okay, I don't really miss the $5 massages. They were weird (particularly one I had in a Vietnamese Hotel unexpectedly involving a lady in heels straddling my back in her underwear. Cheap massage buyer beware!) and usually ineffective.  In fact, at this point I should probably add the disclaimer that it's important to find licensed massage therapists, especially if you have chronic pain or other medical problems.  

Lured by the prices and held by the relaxation and tension relief, I spent a lot of time facedown on a massage table in Asia. I had the opportunity to test drive all different massage types, including traditional Malay, Khmer, and Thai massage (my favorite).   Since managing your health is about much more than the food you eat or the number of steps on your pedometer everyday, all my time on the massage table led me to research different types of massage and the purported health benefits of each.  Techniques like massage can be an important component of disease prevention/symptom relief/ lifestyle medicine especially for stress relief.  Maybe it goes without saying, but less stress means improved blood pressure, sleep, weight control and immunity. 

Although more research is needed on the health benefits of massage, some studies show therapeutic massage can lower blood pressure and can improve chemotherapy induced nausea, cancer related pain and fatigue, non-cancer related pain and depression.  

The majority of massage oriented cancer-related research has been done on breast cancer survivors.  One study on the benefits of aromatherapy massage in breast cancer survivors showed that the perceived benefits included overall comfort, relaxation, reduced pain, muscular tension, lymphedema, and numbness, and improved sleep, energy level, appetite, body image and mood. No adverse affects were reported in the study. 

There are many massage variations, each technique serving a specific purpose. Here is a rundown of some of the most popular massage types in Asia and around the world. 

Traditional Malay Massage (TMM) (Urut Melayu)

TMM, otherwise known as Urut Melayu, involves soft-tissue manipulation of the whole body. It uses deep muscular tissue massage and is partly spiritual in nature, with the practitioner exclusively using their hands and fingers.  A literature review highlights the role TMM has in view of positive, beneficial effects to improve and optimize mobility, physical function, activity, daily living and quality of life. It can be particularly effective for post-stroke patients or as part of prenatal care.  

Khmer (Cambodian) Massage

This technique doesn't use oil, so you remain clothed.  It involves kneading pressure points, working deep into the muscles using thumbs, hands, arms, knees and feet, as well as stretching movements. It's invigorating and relieves muscular tension, loosens joints and opens energy channels. There are some minor stretches at the end lasting no more than a minute. 

Thai Massage

Also known as 'yoga massage', this style combines acupressure, assisted yoga postures, and Ayurveda. The massage generally follows dedicated Meridien lines, so it aligns the energies of the body.  It originated in Buddhist monasteries as a form of preventative health care for monks. It's usually done on a padded mat or futon on the floor, rather than a massage table and you're fully clothed. The therapist uses his/her hands, knees, legs, and feet to move you into a series of yoga-like stretches and also applies muscle compression, joint mobilization, and acupressure. It leaves you feeling a bit beat up, but energized, and it may improve tension headaches, balance, certain types of back pain, muscle spasticity, flexibility and range of motion.  


A form of Japanese bodywork involving localized pressure using the therapist's fingers (or sometimes hands and elbows), applied in a rhythmic sequence along the body. Each point is held for about two to eight seconds. With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, the goal of shiatsu is to stimulate acupressure points on the body to improve the flow of energy and help regain balance.  The energy lines are different than those used in Thai Massage. Since no oil or lotion is used, you wear loose clothing. Shiatsu is normally done on a mat on the floor or on a low massage table and is often used to reduce stress and protect against stress-related health issues. It also may be effective for treating conditions like arthritis, insomnia, back and neck pain, sciatica and even sinus problems. Shiatsu may also increase energy, promote recovery from injuries, and stimulate the digestive system.


The focus here is on your feet! You remove your shoes and socks, but otherwise remain fully clothed. The therapist uses finger pressure, kneading and rubbing to promote relaxation and healing. Reflexology is based on "reflex areas" on the hands and feet, whose energy is believed to be connected to organs and other body parts. By applying pressure to the reflex points, the reflexologist aims to balance your nervous system and stimulate endorphins, which reduces stress and discomfort. This is very relaxing, especially if you stand all day or have achy feet. 

Swedish Massage

This is among the most common type of massage in the U.S. and the technique that's usually offered in most clinics, gyms, spas and wellness centers. It's based on Western concepts of anatomy and physiology rather than the energy-focused philosophies more common in Asian massage. Swedish massage generally uses oil or lotion and begins with broad general strokes, transitioning to specific strokes to address potential problem areas. Swedish massage provides muscle relaxation and is good for injury recovery. 

Occasionally essential oils are used in combination with Swedish massage in a technique known as aromatherapy massage. The soothing effects of essential oils can benefit a variety of conditions, including headaches, insomnia, certain digestive disorders, back pain and even premenstrual symptoms.

Hot Stone Massage

With this type of massage, the therapist places heated, smooth stones on specific points on the body and also holds the warm stones while giving the massage. The warmth of the stones is relaxing and can help to loosen muscles more quickly.  The stones are usually basalt, a volcanic rock that retains heat well.

Deep Tissue Massage

This technique targets muscle knots and specific problem areas in the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. The therapist uses slow strokes or friction across the grain of the muscle, spending more time on chronic tight or painful muscles, repetitive strain, postural problems, or injuries. This type of massage is particularly beneficial for people with chronic pain or nagging injuries that limit mobility. It's effective in treating repetitive stress injuries such as tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome and can be helpful in reducing the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

If you have any injuries, major medical problems, varicose veins or osteoporosis or are on a blood thinning medication, it's best to consult with a healthcare provider before scheduling a massage.  Also another reminder to make sure your massage therapist has the appropriate certifications- you're less likely to end up with a massage related back injury or with someone straddling you in their underwear!