Massage therapy is an intuitive, healing art that has been around for thousands of years. When you get a stomach ache, you rub your belly. When you turn an ankle, your natural instinct is to rub it. When infants cry, parents rock and rub to calm. The natural instinct to use purposeful touch has evolved into a healthy professional industry. Over the years, techniques have been developed that activate natural healing process, stimulating blood flow, guiding hormone production and helping your body heal itself.
The English word “massage” likely comes from the Arabic “mass’h”, which literally translates to “touch”. But may also have its root in the French (“massage”) or Latin “massa”. May believe that massage therapy is the precursor to physical therapy and chiropractic and orthopedic medicine.
Tracing the history of massage is difficult, since it has largely been obscured from public awareness. It’s been practiced in virtually every culture since the beginning of time, so it’s a little hard to track. What follows is “one version” of the history of modern massage in a nutshell.
It All Likely Began in China
The oldest written record of massage is about 3000 years old, in an ancient Chinese medical text “Con-Fu of the Toa-Tse” (1800BCE). The book detailed the use of massage techniques for therapeutic purposes. Many believe that therapeutic touch actually began much earlier there. The art of massage began to evolve into a science through continued use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Evidence of the use of massage in the medical world continued to evolve and become more thoughtful and scientific, thanks to luminaries like Hippocrates (460-380BCE), a Greek generally known as the “father of modern medicine”. Hippocrates wrote in his diary:
“The physician must be experienced in many things but assuredly also in rubbing (anatripsis); for things that have the same name have not always the same effects. For rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose and loosen a joint that is too rigid.…Rubbing can bind and loosen; can make flesh (referring to the ability to tone muscle tissue) and cause parts to waste (soften and relax). Hard rubbing binds; soft rubbing loosens; much rubbing causes parts to waste; moderate rubbing makes them grow.” Hippocrates of Kos (Cos)
Massage in the form of Ayurvedic medicine is evident in Sanskrit records long before the beginning of recorded history.
The Romans continued to refine teachings and massage matured to be accepted by everyone from emperors to gladiators. Galen (130-201CE), a notable physician and writer, became physician to a number of Emperors in the first century (CE). He also reportedly “interned” as physician to the gladiators of the Circus Maximus in Rome. During his time, he created a complete methodology for the use of massage techniques for injury and disease. Galen is seen as the first to document what we would call today “sports massage” or “orthopedic massage”. He was also one of the first to struggle with practitioners who lowered the standard of the profession to include overtly sexual acts. It was this connection that’s still a social stigma that has carried on today.
The Dark Ages and Beyond
During the Dark Ages, repressed religious dogma frowned on any act that involved touching and deemed them unacceptable. Massage went “underground”. It wasn’t until Pehr Henrich Ling (1766-1839), who worked with gymnastic athletes, resurrected soft tissue techniques which ultimately became known as Swedish Massage.
In the late 1800, Dutchman Johan Georg Mezger applied French names to modern massage techniques such as the techniques suggested by Ling, including “effleurage”, “petrissage”, etc. Ling is often incorrectly credited as the “Father of Swedish Massage” – that title belongs to Johann Georg Mezger.
The Massage Renaissance
In the 1950’s massage began a resurgence in the US and by the 1980’s it was widely accepted as a sought-after and effective wellness technique. Use of massage by trainers and sports medicine physicians continue to raise awareness and alter public perception. Massage schools dramatically increased in quality and quantity, professional associations grew, information became more readily available on the internet, and regulation of the field spawned a whole new crowd of exceptionally talented professional therapists.
Today, excellent research and rising standards for professional practice and licensing continue to debunk outdated stereotypes and dispel myths about massage. Millions of Americans experience and enjoy the benefits of massage therapy performed by qualified therapists. Preventative medicine trends and a general rising of the public’s knowledge of massage therapy, have lifted modalities like massage, acupuncture, yoga and nutritional balance out of the “alternative” arena to become keystones in good health practice.
Robert Noah Calvert (2002), The History of Massage: An Illustrated Survey from Around the World, Healing Arts Press
Garrison, Fielding H. (1966), History of Medicine, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company.