I get asked every day for a nice, relaxing Swedish massage. No problem! I can't think of a much better way to spend an hour. But the way that folks talk about Swedish and deep tissue massage points out that there's some misunderstanding about what Swedish massage is and what it can do for you.
Swedish massage is an ordered series of strokes, intended to warm the soft tissue, knead it to enhance circulation, address knots and adhesions, and flush the lymph and blood towards the heart. Although these moves are ordered, they can be done at any pressure and in any proportion to each other. Thus, one Swedish massage can feel radically different from another, depending on your goals for your massage and the massage therapist doing the work. Most of what people assume are deep tissue massages are actually Swedish massages, just performed with more-than-average pressure.
Personally, I love Swedish massage because of its versatility and efficacy. Want a relaxing hour on a table? Swedish massage. Want rigorous work on an injury? Swedish massage. Want to manage a long-term pain condition? Swedish massage. The system that structures Swedish massage is flexible enough to meet each of these goals. The proportions by which you implement the system is what makes every Swedish massage unique.
How does it work? The basic Swedish massage strokes, and the purposes for each of them, go like this:
Effleurage: These are the long, comforting strokes that follow the length of a limb or your spine. Effleurage is an important warmup for the rest of the system, and is used as a flushing stroke to wrap up work on a certain area. If you ask for a relaxing massage, lots of time will likely be devoted to effleurage.
Petrissage: Feel like the massage therapist is kneading you like bread? That's petrissage. It's great for lengthening and broadening muscle tissue. This makes petrissage relaxing when performed gently and more invigorating when done with a firmer touch. If your massage goals involve pain management, you'll be getting a fair proportion of petrissage in your Swedish massage.
Friction: Is the massage therapist hanging out on a knot, really digging in and working on that one spot? That's likely friction, the stroke with which an LMT is concentrating a rubbing motion over a specific area of concern. Gentle friction is warming and anaestatizing, while a firmer pressure breaks down knots and adhesions.
Most Swedish massages follow an effleurage-petrisssage-friction-effleurage pattern. Sometimes, we'll use one or both of the following strokes for extra credit:
Compression: The massage therapist applies static pressure to a tender spot. This can be done broadly and gently for a comforting effect, or firmly and at a more narrow location, to interrupt a cramp or pain signal.
Tapotement: You've seen it on TV: the massage therapist plays someone's back like the bongo drums. It's another way of desensitzing an uncomfortable area; some people find it incredibly soothing. Like each of the other strokes, tapotement can be applied at any pressure to customize the result.
Ultimately, it's the way that your LMT combines these strokes and applies differing amounts of pressure that gives every Swedish massge its unique experience. You and your friends may prefer very different massage experiences, but chances are that most of you are getting Swedish massages.