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Massage: Swedish vs Non-Swedish

I'm frequently asked what type of massage we offer, as many offices and spas will offer a "menu" style of massage options, including, but not limited to:

  • (Traditional) Swedish Massage
  • Deep Tissue Massage
  • Aromatherapy Massage
  • Pre-Natal Massage (or Post-Natal or Peri-Natal)
  • Hot Stone Massage
  • Thai Massage
  • Indian Head Massage
  • Sports Massage
  • Relaxation Massage
  • Orthopedic Massage

The truth is, in Ontario, we only have ONE kind of massage therapy - the kind delivered by a Registered Massage Therapist - a regulated health care provider.

Although the terms may lead you to believe something different, if the session is being delivered by a Registered Massage Therapist, in the scope of practice of Massage Therapy (as defined in Ontario), then it is called Massage Therapy.  Our regulatory body, the College of Massage Therapists, makes this explicitly clear and even offers protection for the terms "Registered Massage Therapist," "Massage Therapist," and "Massage Therapy." (Ref. CMTO website)  Patients should be able to expect safe and empathetic massage therapy whenever it is delivered by one of our members, and always with the patient's best interests in mind.

Now, as most techniques performed by a Registered Massage Therapist are "within the public domain" (meaning the acts themselves are not protected, such as the prescription of medication, or delivering a diagnosis which ARE protected acts - ref. RHPA 1991) and the term "massage" is not protected, a variety of other providers may offer "massage" services.  This could include estheticians at a spa, and some unlicensed practitioners who may use medical/professional sounding language - such as myomassologist, or chair massage practitioner.  These providers are not committing any fraud or engaging in anything illegal in using these terms, as long as they are not using the protected term "massage therapy" or "massage therapist," however, their language is often similar enough to confuse the layperson.

So what about the different techniques delivered by a Massage Therapist?  Why all the different terms?  Generally, these terms either reflect some additional training that a Massage Therapist has taken - notably, additional courses in Aromatherapy, Hot Stone Massage or Pre-Natal Massage - or they may reflect a desire by an establishment to differentiate services for the sake of charging different prices.  They may also be used to indicate a particular style of massage that is available.  For example, a "sports massage" would suggest a more vigorous pace, with a primary goal of addressing complaints relating to a sporting pursuit.  However, any Massage Therapist in Ontario has passed the Ontario registration exams and has demonstrated a minimum level of competency in a collection of therapeutic techniques used for patient care.  The choice of using Swedish massage vs. Non-Swedish massage techniques, or deep tissue pressure vs. lighter techniques should be based on the Massage Therapist's assessment of the patient's condition, a consideration of their history and preferences, and adherence to safety standards.  That is to say, that in Ontario, because Massage Therapists are regulated health care providers, if you ask for a "deep tissue" massage, but for some reason it would be unsafe, that Massage Therapist is required to deny your request and to explain their reasoning.  By the same token, if you haven't specifically requested "deep tissue" work, however, the Massage Therapist thinks that you would benefit from this kind of care, they have a duty to present this option to you as a possible course of care for your condition.

Swedish massage techniques refer generally to a collection of techniques focused around kneading, compressing or percussing tissue layers relative to one another.  This includes effleurage (the long, broad strokes) and petrissage (the shorter kneading circular motions) as two main components. (ref. "Clinical Massage Therapy" by F. Rattray and L. Ludwig)

Non-Swedish massage techniques refer generally to a collection of techniques generally used by manual practitioners that do not fall within the "Swedish" group.  This may include trigger point therapy, assisted stretching, joint mobilizations and fascial work (among others.)

Neither Swedish massage or Non-Swedish massage techniques are generally more or less effective.  When properly chosen, both make for a comprehensive treatment for a patient.  All Massage Therapists are required to be trained in the basic collection of techniques in both categories and all Massage Therapists adhering to our standards of practice are required to choose the techniques most appropriate to a patient's presenting complaint/condition.

So, in summary:

  • Aromatherapy massage, Hot Stone massage, Thai massage, etc are indicators of a different set of techniques to be used.  The Massage Therapist may use these terms without having taken a formal course in that group of techniques.
  • Relaxation massage, Pre-Natal massage (or Post- or Peri-natal massage), Sports massage, Orthopedic massage, etc. are indicators of a different set of considerations, possibly in relation to safety, outcomes, or medical concerns in the approach to the patient and their condition at that visit.  These considerations may change for the same patient visit to visit.  Specialty courses are not required for the Massage Therapist to claim to offer a particular type of massage.
  • Deep Tissue massage is a misnomer, as all Massage Therapists in Ontario are trained to use the most appropriate techniques and pressures based on the patient's presentation and goals.  However, this may be used to indicate that the Massage Therapist is able to provide a firmer pressure.  Remember that the notion of "deep" may vary significantly person to person and therapist to therapist.
  • All Massage Therapists in Ontario are regulated health care providers and must put their patients' health and safety FIRST.  Regardless of which techniques a patient expresses a preference for, the Massage Therapist is required by law to make the best clinical choices possible for their patients, considering first the patient's safety, the therapist's ability and training and the goals and desired outcomes for the patient, all within the Massage Therapist's scope of practice.

When seeking a Massage Therapy treatment, remember that as the patient you are able to seek out the style or techniques you prefer or from which you benefit most, however, a listing on a "menu" may not necessarily indicate any specialized training on the part of the therapist.  Don't be afraid to ask about the therapist's continuing education, their clinical experience and their treatment style.  This will help ensure that you find the therapist best suited to your goals, while saving you time and achieving results faster!


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