At some point in our lives every one suffers from minor injuries, pain or discomfort. Our instinctive reaction is to rub or hold the affected area to ease the pain. If you stub your toe or have a stomach ache, you rub it to stop it from hurting so much. Early man probably soon learnt that, whilst rubbing painful areas of his body, certain plants could be applied which would help to ease the pain and promote healing. This basic technique has been developed through the millennia into the system of massage we know today. Massage is the systematic manipulation of the soft body tissues for therapeutic purposes. The English word massage is derived from the Arabic word ‘mass’h’, which means to press gently. This itself gives a hint to the long history of massage. Massage in its most basic form has been around as long as man, however today there are many highly specialized forms of massage all derived from these basic techniques.
The first documented descriptions of massage dating back to about 3,000 BC were discovered in China. Chinese Taoist priests practiced ‘Qi Gong’ - meditative movement revealing and cultivating the vital life force. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the principle that every illness, ailment or discomfort in the body is due to an imbalance of ‘Qi’. In about 1,000 BC Japanese monks began to study Buddhism in China. They witnessed the healing methods of traditional Chinese medicine and took them back to Japan. In Japan the practice of medicine mostly consisted of diagnosis and treatment with massage-type methods. The Japanese not only adopted the Chinese style, but also began to enhance it by introducing new combinations, eventually reaching a unique Japanese form called Shiatsu. Shiatsu is a Japanese word derived from ‘shi’ meaning finger and ‘atsu’ meaning pressure. It is a technique similar to that used in acupuncture but without needles and with extra movements involved.
Civilization in India also dates back to about 3,000 BC. Around 1,800 to 500 BC the Vedic Indian culture spread westwards towards the river Ganges. They developed a unique form of medicine know as Ayurvedic medicine. They wrote several great books that recorded their techniques. One called ‘Ayur Veda’ which means ‘the arts of life’, dates back to 1,700 BC and describes some simple massage and herbal treatments for various conditions.
Native Americans also used heat and massage with herbs to treat many problems. The Cherokee and Navaho were among many tribes who rubbed their warriors before they went to war and when they returned. Massage was used to ease the labor pains of women and colic in infants.
The ancient Greeks valued the benefits of massage very highly, using it in most avenues of daily life. Techniques were developed to help athletes to keep their bodies in the best condition for competitions. They also used massage for relaxation. Herodotus, a historian who lived from 484 to 425 BC, recorded the fact that certain herbs had a sedative action whilst others were more refreshing. Physicians of the time such as Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC) ‘the father of medicine’, used these herbs with oils and massage techniques to treat many medical conditions. He stated that "anyone wishing to study medicine must master the art of massage." Greek women also recognized the value of massage with aromatic oils, using them as a beauty treatment for the skin and face. Homer in his work Odyssey describes massage as "welcome relief to exhausted war heroes." By 326 BC elements of Ayurvedic medicine had become an integral part of Greek medicine.
The Romans learnt many of their medical techniques from the Greeks. Galen, a notable physician to several Emperors in the first century AD, used massage to treat many types of disease and physical injuries. He cited Hippocrates saying "rubbing, if strenuous, hardens the body, if gentle relaxes... rubbing should be employed, when either a feeble body has to be toned up, or one indurate has to be softened, or harmful super fluidity is to be dispersed, or a thin and infirm body has to be nourished." Julius Caesar, who suffered from neuralgia, had his body ‘pinched’ every day to help greater blood flow and reduce fatty tissue below the skin. The wealthy would be massaged in their own home, by their personal physician, but many others received treatment at public baths, where both trainers and doctors plied their trade. Public baths were often funded by benefactors, so the entrance fee was nominal, hence baths were bustling places. Seneca vividly described the resulting din in his book Epistulae Morales LVI "I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds... I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rub-down, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow."
With the end of the fourteenth century came the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The Renaissance brought along with it many great discoveries in the arts and sciences. In medicine there was a shift away from the centuries old teaching of Galen, and the spiritual basis for disease. Massage also became unpopular as Europe was overcome by a conservative and repressive religious dogma. Touching was not considered as part of the healing method as it involved corporal pleasures and these were considered sinful.
Ambroise Pare (1510-1590) a French ‘barber-surgeon’ developed many techniques in surgery that made it a lot safer and less crippling to the patient. He went on to become the personal physician to four of France’s kings. In one of his publications he described the positive effects of massage in the healing process.
There were very few advances in massage until 1813, when Pehr Henrik Ling established the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics in Sweden. In the nineteenth century the most common treatments for illness were blood letting and the use of purgatives. Physicians put their faith in science, and new drugs such as Calomel, mercury and arsenic based tonics, were in common usage. Ling formalized a series of gymnastic movements and massage techniques which have become known as Swedish massage. These techniques included ‘effleurage’ or stroking, ‘petrisage’ or pressing and squeezing and ‘tapotement’ or striking. Ling is sometimes credited with being the father of modern massage.
During the 1960s there was a backlash against the establishment and man made things that were seen to be destroying our environment and a resurgence of interest in natural ways of treating the body. Since then there has been an increasing interest in massage and its use to relieve stress and reduce the effects of some illnesses.
Today there is still some skepticism in the medical profession as to the scientific reasons behind the use of massage as a healing technique. Therefore in 1992 the ‘Touch Research Institute’ was established at the University of Miami School of Medicine entirely devoted to the study of touch and its application in science and medicine. They have shown that massage can induce weight gain in premature infants, alleviate depressive symptoms, reduce stress hormones, alleviate pain and positively alter the immune system in children and adults with various medical conditions. Hence massage is becoming recognized as a viable and useful alternative or aid to modern medicine. In our modern society, where stress-related psychological disorders are becoming the number one health problem, massage is likely to gain increasing popularity to improve every body’s health and well-being.