What is Massage Therapy? A Historical Breakdown.

Mackenzie Seymour/ February 27, 2017/ Dr. Danielle

Whenever I tell someone I’m a registered massage therapist (RMT, MT) I’m often asked: “What kind of massage do you practice?” This question has always bothered me a little because what people expect me to answer is just, Swedish massage, Thai massage, Shiatsu (Japanese massage), Indian massage. Often I just settle for saying Swedish massage and that settles the question, but the answer is actually a lot more intricate than that. The practise of manually manipulating the body to improve health has been a part of the human experience for centuries and today, practitioners from many fields of the healthcare industry employ aspects of this tradition in their practices. Massage isn’t defined by the environment it’s performed, it’s defined by its outcomes on the human body. Ultimately, regardless of what music is being played or if aromatherapy is applied during the treatment, all massage when used to generate a pre-conceived positive outcome on the human body is the same. Since here in Canada and the U.S. most MT’s primarily employ techniques tried and tested by western researchers, I decided to do a breakdown of the history and techniques used in most-day-to-day practices in North America to better explain what it is we do.

Massage therapy has been an aspect of contemporary health care for centuries. Developed initially by the ancient Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese cultures as a component of whole body health, the practice was taken up and spread by the Greeks, Romans, and Japanese as their civilizations began to expand. The Greeks in particular found their Olympic athletes performed better when they incorporated massage into their training regimens. During the Middle Ages massage saw a decline with the advent of early pharmacology and improved medical procedures. The Renaissance brought it back with written records indicating the use of massage in conjunction with more modern interventions.

The practice incorporating techniques that we attribute to western massage was first documented in the late 1800’s by a Dutch practitioner named Johann Georg Mezger. Mezger made a name for himself by successfully treating prominent aristocrats through massage and exercise in a time when absolute bedrest was prescribed for physical ailments. Later, based on the techniques left by Mezger, Swedish physician Per Henril Ling’s work, The Swedish Gymnastic Movement System, would be published post-mortem, which combined comprehensive understanding of anatomy and physiology with massage and exercise. The title would slowly be shortened until it became simply known in North America as Swedish Massage, the western school of manual therapy that became the common face of the profession today. Interestingly, Swedish massage is more commonly called Classic massage in English-speaking Europe.  Further research was published supporting the use of “deep tissue” cross-fibre techniques in the late 1940’s, lymphatic drainage in the late ‘70’s, and trigger point therapy in the mid-80’s

Today in Ontario as well as across North America, modern colleges and associations have been building on the techniques developed by these western pioneers. Speaking for my own college and association, the definition or “scope” of massage therapy is: “… the assessment of the soft tissue and joints of the body and the treatment and prevention of physical dysfunction and pain of the soft tissues and joints by manipulation to develop, maintain, rehabilitate or augment physical function, or relieve pain.” To that end, anyone seeking treatment from a RMT in Ontario can expect to receive some level of orthopaedic assessment, manual manipulation (in the form of Swedish and connective tissue techniques), joint mobilizations, stretches, as well as exercise and hydrotherapy.

All of this to say, that when you walk through the door of a massage therapy clinic, regardless of what style of massage they advertise, RMT’s are working to maximize your health by increasing your movement, decreasing pain, or relieving the stress and fatigue that accompanies it. They are using a system of techniques that have been proved by hundreds of years’ worth of trial and error by people such as Mezger and Ling.  As a RMT in Ontario, I speak of RMT’s that have met the educational criteria mandated by our government, which in our case involves a 2-3 year advanced diploma, and passing two provincial standardized exams.  More experienced RMT’s will have added additional modalities to their practice such as acupuncture or ultrasound treatment, but you can be assured that even the newest RMT will have equivalent training in the skills I mentioned above.

I hope this is helpful to some of you!



Massage Therapy Magazine: https://www.massagemag.com/magazine-2002-issue100-history100-24026/

Blog of Peter LaGrasse LMT: https://lagrassemassage.com/history.html

Natural Healers.com (educational directory): http://www.naturalhealers.com/massage-therapy/history/

All Allied Health.com (educational directory): http://www.allalliedhealthschools.com/massage-therapist/massage-therapy-history/

Registered Massage Therapist’s Association of Ontario website: https://secure.rmtao.com/massage_therapy/what_is_massage_therapy.htm

Massage Therapy Act of Ontario 1991: https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/91m27/v2

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