Be Well: The ABCs of Massage Therapy

From Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s Be Well

The things that we used to consider self-care—like the occasional massage or acupuncture treatment—are as essential as ever when we reflect on the traumas we’ve endured, and the fight-or-flight state we’ve persisted in. Mentally, physically, emotionally. So what do we do with all that extra weight? We put it in the hands of the experts and let them work on our … well, body of work. Sarah Weaver, a licensed acupuncturist, board-certified in therapeutic massage and bodywork, and associate professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University, provides a crash course on the roster of bodywork techniques available today, guiding us through shiatsu, Thai massage, reflexology, trigger point therapy, and more.

“Massage therapy is a broad field, and there may be more than one type that is a good fit for people,” says Weaver. “I personally am fond of several kinds of massage and find it fun and interesting to try things that are new to me.”

It’s important to choose a massage therapist based off of what you’re hoping to get out of the experience, Weaver says. Relaxation, stress relief, injury recovery, pain relief, athletic support, or addressing a medical condition can all be reasons to seek massage. From there, you can find a therapy and practitioner that can meet that specific need.

For a Good Stretch: Shiatsu
The Japanese Ministry of Health defines shiatsu as “a form of manipulation by thumbs, fingers, and palms without the use of instruments, mechanical or otherwise, to apply pressure to the human skin to correct internal malfunctions, promote and maintain health, and treat specific diseases. The techniques used in shiatsu include stretching, holding, and most commonly, leaning body weight into various points along key channels.” This full-body style of Japanese massage is performed with the person being massaged lying on a floor mat while fully clothed, Weaver says.

“It is based in traditional Asian medicine theory and uses the acupuncture meridians as a basis for treatment,” she says. “The strokes combine pressing rhythmically along meridians and also some passive stretching and movement of limbs.”

Before being treated, the therapist does a health intake along with pulse and tongue exams, she says.

“They will then perform a treatment based on an assessment of which acupuncture meridians need support,” Weaver says.

For Something More Vigorous: Thai Massage
Another clothed variety of massage, Thai massage is similar to Shiatsu, but is more intense.

A type of traditional Asian bodywork, Thai massage is more vigorous, involves more body mobilization, and includes more passive stretching than Shiatsu, Weaver says. Similar to Shiatsu, the client lies on a floor mat, and it can be good for relieving head and back pain.

“Some people describe it as if they are getting a passive yoga class,” she explains. “I think many athletes would like how vigorous Thai massage is and would like the passive stretching.”

For Chronic Tightness (or an Early Cold): Gua Sha
​You’ve probably heard of it or seen a beauty blogger doing it on TikTok and may be wondering if it’s worth the hype.

The long answer is that this traditional Chinese medicine therapy could help the body fight off the onset of a cold and invading pathogens, Weaver says. The practice is also used to address scar tissue or adhesions.

It works by using a tool made of plastic, shell, stone, or bone to scrape tight soft tissue, breaking up tiny capillaries near the surface, Weaver says.

“The body responds to this micro injury by repairing tissue in the area and making the local tissue less tight and more functional,” she explains. “It can be helpful for people with chronic tightness in the upper back, shoulder, and neck muscles, and for people in the early stages of a cold.”

The drawback? You may have some red marks on your skin for about a week, as the process leaves a type of bruise.

And those TikTokkers you’ve seen doing gua sha themselves? Not recommended. You really should only get gua sha from a licensed bodywork therapist, Weaver says.

As of now, Minnesota is one of only a few states that doesn’t license massage therapy as health care.

“People wanting to get a massage in Minnesota should look at whether the therapist has graduated from a massage school with basic education of at least 500 hours,” Weaver says. “They should have board certification in therapeutic massage and bodywork, or NCCAOM certification in Asian bodywork therapy.” You should also check if they belong to a professional association, she adds.

Depending on your goals and current health, the number and frequency of sessions will vary. And of course, never be afraid to ask questions.

For Whole-Body Relaxation: Reflexology
Looking for some complete body relaxation, but you’re not quite comfortable undressing or having someone working on your whole body? Reflexology, which focuses on the head, hand, and toe areas, could be a good fit.

This soft tissue therapy focuses on manually stimulating reflex zones to promote stress relief and body function, Weaver says.

“The theory in reflexology is that the whole body—including various organs and structures like the spine—are represented on the feet or the hands, or the head,” she says. “It often causes a very deep whole-body relaxation.”

When practitioners do reflexology, they often use their hands to stimulate those reflex zones.

“Reflexology can be great for most people but is especially helpful for people who can’t undress for other types of bodywork or who have limited mobility,” she says. “It is great for elderly people, people in nursing homes or hospitals, or therapy in group treatment settings like a cancer infusion center.”

While acupuncture and acupressure are not reflexology, Weaver says acupuncturists sometimes use those reflex points and systems while applying needles—typically in practices like auricular acupuncture and Korean hand therapy acupuncture.

For Muscle Pain: Trigger Point Therapy
Trigger point therapy is a form of massage that incorporates focused work addressing myofascial trigger points in muscles and tendons, says Weaver. Trigger points are defined as local areas of contraction and irritation in a muscle belly or where a muscle joins a tendon.

This type of massage therapy can be helpful for many people and most types of muscle pain, Weaver says.

“People who like more pressure and detail work in their massage find trigger point therapy helpful,” she says. Plus, it can relieve neck, shoulder, upper back, lower back, and hip pain, she says. (And almost everyone I know has at least one of those.)

“Typically, when touched with some pressure, trigger points hurt locally and cause a sensation of pain or pressure or tingling that travels away from the local area,” Weaver explains. “Direct pressure along with massage strokes that elongate the muscle are often quite relieving of pain associated with trigger points.”

For your own wellbeing, it is important that your massage therapist is properly trained. For example, Weaver is trained in trigger point therapy and neuromuscular therapy.