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Clearing the Confusion: Defining common (and not so common) massage & bodywork modalities

Updated: May 25

When you hear the word massage, what images or feelings do you get? 

The Oxford definition of massage is ‘‘The rubbing and kneading of muscles and joints of the body, especially to relieve tension or pain.” Maybe you’ve also heard of therapeutic massage, and bodywork. Sometimes these terms are woven interchangeably into the fabric of healing arts. By clarifying their definitions, and the specialized modalities that are underneath these three primary umbrellas, it’s my goal to provide you with accurate information so that you can choose the most appropriate treatment or practitioner for your body’s needs.  

All bodywork is massage but not all massage is bodywork

When considering the classic definition of massage, bodywork falls under the category of massage. However, I define bodywork as leaning more towards a comprehensive plan to resolve postural deviations and re-establishing balance to the body as a whole; and therapeutic massage falling somewhere in between. 


The most common modalities of massage are Swedish and Deep Tissue.

Swedish or Deep Tissue
  • Swedish - A classic method for relaxing the body. Swedish massage uses light to moderate pressure with longer, sweeping strokes to relieve stress and melt muscles. 

  • Deep tissue - Ramps up the pressure in massage strokes and techniques to better release muscle knots and body tension.



  • Ashiatsu - Massage performed with the practitioners bare feet, rather than hands.

  • Prenatal - Massage for pregnant women.

  • Hot stones - The practitioner performs massage holding hot stones (usually basalt) as a way to deeply relax the muscles and efficiently bring blood supply to the areas worked. This is a great modality to receive during the winter months!


Therapeutic massage covers a large variety of modalities as a means of providing treatment to improve injuries, range of motion, and elevate performance. In the realm of physical therapy, two terms that you might hear in relation to therapeutic massage are manual therapy or soft tissue mobilization.  

  • Lymphatic drainage - Promotes the movement of lymphatic fluid through the lymph system to alleviate swelling due to fluid retention called lymphedema.

  • Trigger point/Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT) A trigger point is a cluster of tight muscle tissue (those knots that you feel in your shoulders, calves, or anywhere else in the body). The therapist applies direct pressure to the trigger point for a specific short period of time, aiding its release.

  • Medical massage - Medical massage integrates a large spectrum of techniques to help people who are recovering from surgery and injuries. 

  • Sports massage - Sports massage and medical massage fall into each other because both forms might utilize a variety of similar techniques. Sports massage however, focuses on providing recovery for highly active people and athletes so that they can have optimal performance for their activity/sport/event. Things that a medical or sports oriented therapist might include in a session:

Sports Massage

*Deep tissue massage

*Swedish/’flush’ massage

*Contrast heat/ice application 

*Use of a massage gun


~ Active (the client performs the stretch)

~ Passive/assisted (the therapist holds the stretch for client)

~ Contract/relax

  • Reflexology - By applying pressure to specific areas of the feet, hands, and ears that correlate to body structures and organs, the client gets relief and a restored sense of overall health.                                                                                                  


Bodywork observes and treats the body as a whole entity, and bodyworkers devise a treatment strategy based on the story that the body is telling. 

  • Structural Integration/Rolfing - Developed by Ida Rolf, Structural Integration observes the body during movement and from all directions. The comprehensive techniques of Structural Integration manipulates the fascia and other connective tissues of the body to bring the client into balance in the clients battle with gravity.

  • Myofascial Release - Developed by John F Barnes PT.  By applying gentle, sustained compression on the areas of adhered (stuck together) myofascia, the area treated is released. 

  • Craniosacral Therapy - A form of bodywork that includes gently manipulating the skull, spinal column, and sacrum. By balancing these three components, homeostasis is restored to other areas of the body.

  • Shiatsu - Established in Japan, and rooted in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concept of the 5 Element Theory, a Shiatsu practitioner applies pressure to areas of the body to reinstate the balance of qi (energy/life force) to one’s body.

  • Thai massage - An ancient Asian practice of massage that improves flexibility through a variety of assisted stretching techniques, and uses these techniques to better align the body’s energy paths for improved health.   

Thai Massage

There are a number of subcategories not listed above. As a practitioner, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of all of the modalities offered for massage therapists and bodyworkers to explore. Many practitioners integrate a few modalities into each session, where others specialize in one or two practices. Whether you prefer to have a mixture of techniques during a service, or align more with a specialized therapist, the intended goal of the practitioner is to help you feel better when you leave. 

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