Swedish Massage vs. Shiatsu Massage: Which Is Better?

Swedish Massage vs. Shiatsu Massage: Which Is Better?

The health benefits of massage therapy are relatively well-known; however, many people struggle to understand the plethora of massage types and their unique benefits. This can make it nearly impossible to find a massage that meets your needs and preferences. Swedish massage and Shiatsu are both relaxing, but there are plenty of notable differences between them.

Swedish massage is one of the most popular and relaxing massage types. Shiatsu originates from Japan and can be an invigorating, healing form of massage therapy. Both kinds of massage can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure. However, that’s about where their similarities end.

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at both Swedish massage and Shiatsu to discover what they are, how they came to be, and what kind of treatment each massage type entails. We’ll also take a moment to directly compare these two in an attempt to discover which one is better.

What Is Swedish Massage?

Swedish massage is the most popular massage type in the United States. It is often considered to be one of the most relaxing kinds of massage. This massage involved slow motions and gentle stroking techniques. 

Still, while broad, slow-paced stroking is a hallmark of Swedish massage, it is not the only technique used. Tapping, body manipulation, and kneading are also essential components of a Swedish massage. 

Many therapists who specialize in Swedish massage use massage oils to reduce friction and create a gentler, more soothing experience for clients. Most Swedish massage sessions are scheduled within periods of 30 minutes. As such, clients can expect to commit at least half an hour to each session, if not more.

History

Understanding Swedish massage may start with understanding how it came to be. To do this, we’ll need to take a brief trip back to the early 1800s. Don’t worry. We won’t be staying there too long. The story of Swedish massage begins with a painful injury and a novel series of ideas.

The creation of this kind of massage is almost always attributed to a Swedish man named Per Henrik Ling. Ling was an educated man with a significant amount of local influence. He is primarily remembered as one of the most influential early champions of modern physical fitness and education. 

However, while Ling was known for his research on personal athletics, he wasn’t immune to sickness or injury. After suffering damage to his elbows, Ling committed himself to a self-prescribed series of massage techniques, including fencing sessions. 

Through sheer will, repetition, and experimentation, he recovered from his injuries and enjoyed a reduction in elbow stiffness and pain. After this experience, Ling began to form more in-depth theories concerning the influence of physical therapy, massage, and exercise on health. 

When he died in 1939, the idea of Swedish massage was still in its early stages and had yet to be defined. The modern concept of Swedish massage wouldn’t come about until the late 1860s. Johann Georg Mezger, a Dutch physician, laid down the five essential Swedish massage techniques that are still used today.

Consequently, many educators and massage therapists debate the Swedish massage’s real founder, but this debate is an academic one. No matter which founder history chooses to remember, the tenets (or techniques) or Swedish massage will likely remain the same.

Massage Techniques

One of the most defining traits of Swedish massage is its reliance on a core set of techniques. These motions are often referenced as the five techniques of the Swedish massage. They are:

  • Effleurage
  • Petrissage
  • Friction
  • Vibration
  • Tapotement

If you’re not familiar with some of the above terms, don’t worry. We’re going to break down each specific technique and take a look at what it means and how it’s applied. This way, you’ll have an in-depth understanding of what Swedish massage is and what to expect if you ever decide to get one.

Effleurage

This is the type of motion most commonly associated with Swedish massage; it is primarily a long, slow, stroking action targeting a person’s prominent veins and arteries. This technique is used in several ways, and it is almost always the first physical interaction of the session.

The gentle, patient nature of this technique allows the massage therapist to gauge a client’s muscle tension and sensitivity before moving forward into the next motions series. As the massage continues, the therapist’s use of effleurage may become slightly more pressurized. 

However, effleurage is never painful or uncomfortable. Some of the essential goals of this movement are muscle extension, stimulation, and relaxation. 

Petrissage

Petrissage is a technique that is similar to the one bakers use to knead bread. However, this motion features a wave-like recoil to help further stimulate soft tissues. It is often referred to as kneading, though the actual movement is far more complex.

This technique helps increase circulation, reduce muscle tension, and help increase flexibility throughout the body. It can be mildly intense, though therapists tend to apply just enough pressure to release knots with inducing pain.

Friction

Though therapists may apply lotions or oils during a Swedish massage to reduce friction, the friction technique could help loosen tense muscles. This technique is one of the most rapid of the five Swedish techniques and typically involves circular motions and moderate pressure.

Still, this technique is reserved for small moments and doesn’t typically last longer than a few seconds. This ensures that clients remain relaxed and comfortable while also enjoying brief bouts of deep tissue stimulation.

Vibration

This term could be the easiest one to explain. It’s exactly what you think it is. During a vibration technique, the massage therapist will apply a machine that produces vibrations. They may also manipulate the body using rapid hand motions to create vibrations. 

This particular technique could help soothe muscle tissue, though it could also be performed to help stimulate circulation or healing. The more intense the vibration, the more stimulated the affected tissue.

Tapotement

As the name of this technique suggests, it’s all about the tapping. Tapotement is when the massage therapist taps against the client’s skin and musculature using the side of their hand or their fingertips. It is a percussive motion thought to relieve tension, awaken the nervous system, and promote immediate boosts in circulation.

Potential Benefits

If you’re not sold on the exceptionally relaxing side effects of Swedish massage, then you may find yourself more compelled to check it out after learning about its additional benefits. Some of these advantageous effects include:

  • Short-term pain relief
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Fewer headaches
  • Better sleep

These combined effects make Swedish massage exceptionally useful in combating depression, stress, and insomnia. The techniques used in this massage type can also help reduce mild aches and pains.

Short-Term Pain Relief

Prescription painkillers can be a boon for those overcoming severe injuries or recovering from invasive operations. However, codeine-based medications can be extremely addictive. Many physicians have started to turn toward alternatives to pain medications, including physical therapy and massage.

Swedish massage is gently stimulating and hardly ever overwhelming. Clients with mild sprains or sore muscles could enjoy a noticeable reduction in pain levels during a massage. Unlike more intense forms of massage therapy, Swedish massage doesn’t produce a ton of inflammation.

Consequently, it could be a painless, drugless solution to chronic and acute pain. Still, Swedish massage is beloved more for its calming effects than its pain reduction benefits. Interestingly, one of the primary advantages of feeling peaceful is decreased blood pressure.

Decreased Blood Pressure

When your body initiates fight-or-flight mode, several things happen at once. Your blood pressure may rise, your heart rate could increase, and you may begin to tremble, shake, or sweat profusely. None of these effects are incredibly pleasant, though they could help you survive a tricky situation.

Still, many of the stressors we encounter in our everyday lives are a far cry from the ancient predators that once caused us to either rise and fight or turn around and flee. We can’t punch our bosses or run away from our spouses without adding more stress to our lives.

However, high blood pressure can lead to various health issues, including heart attack or stroke. It is crucial to keep the heart in tip-top shape, which often means finding a way to lower blood pressure. Because Swedish massage is a relaxing therapy, it can help lower stress while also keeping blood pressure within a healthy range.

Fewer Headaches

Another side effect of less stress is fewer headaches. We tend to carry a lot of our stress in our shoulders, neck, and upper back. Unpleasant situations can cause us to tense the muscles in these areas. Prolonged stress may result in noticeable muscle tension around the neck and scalp.

This tautness can contribute to the onset of chronic tension headaches. Over-the-counter pain relievers may have little to no effect on such headaches, so a better solution is finding peace and releasing stress. A relaxed body isn’t tense, which means it isn’t contributing to headaches.

Better Sleep

Just about 33% of US adults admit to not getting enough sleep. The actual number of sleep-deprived peoples is probably much more extensive. A lack of sleep can be dangerous. Driving a vehicle while sleep-deprived can be just as dangerous as driving drunk.

Many people may not be aware that they’re dealing with a sleep debt. Individuals who work multiple jobs or care for several household members (including children or the elderly) may be significantly sleep deprived. 

Some of the most common sleep deprivation symptoms include confusion, memory loss, high blood pressure, and obesity. Solving this problem can be challenging. Sleep medications may be too powerful, causing users to oversleep and put their employment at risk. Natural options, like melatonin, may work at first but become less effective after repeated use.

Swedish massage is a drug-free alternative to these options. The unique blend of massage techniques that make this kind of massage famous is known for its relaxing effects. These soothing sensations don’t end when your session does.

The sleep-promoting effects of Swedish massage can last throughout the day, ensuring that you’re able to quickly and easily fall asleep come bedtime. Also, some clients may experience the positive benefits of massage for several days after their session.

Potential Drawbacks

Swedish massage poses exceptionally few drawbacks. Unlike more intense forms of massage (like Shiatsu), it isn’t associated with temporary soreness or discomfort. However, Swedish massage may be a poor choice for those with hectic, busy schedules. 

Additionally, most therapists prefer to perform Swedish massage on clients with bare, exposed skin. They use lotions and oils to keep this skin hydrated and slightly slippery, reducing any potentially painful friction during the massage. 

While a massage therapist may agree to perform a Swedish massage on a moderately-clothed client, the result may not be as relaxing as it could be when performed traditionally. As such, you may want to opt for a different form of massage if you’re entirely uncomfortable with the idea of gentle, skin-to-skin contact.

Shiatsu massage can often take longer than a Swedish massage, but it can also be performed on fully-clothed individuals. If you’d rather keep your shirt on, you might want to choose Shiatsu instead of a Swedish massage.

What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Shiatsu massage originates from Japan but has roots that trail back into Ancient China. It is a form of massage that integrates a series of Eastern principles regarding qi, or life-giving energy. The belief is that every person contains vital energy called qi. 

This energy is constantly flowing through our bodies via meridians, thought to be pathways for a person’s qi. Massage therapists that practice Shiatsu massage manipulate various points along a person’s primary meridians to encourage improved health, healing, and pain relief.

Unlike Swedish massage, Shiatsu utilizes firm touch. The name of this kind of massage is actually a rough translation of the Japanese expression for “finger pressure.” A massage therapist in the middle of a Shiatsu massage might use their fingers, thumbs, or palms to stimulate pressure points rhythmically. 

This can produce some mild pain or discomfort, especially if your muscles are sore. The pace of hand motions also tends to be far faster in Shiatsu than during a Swedish massage. 

History

The precise origins of Shiatsu massage can be traced to a Japanese man named Tokujiro Namikoshi. As a young man, Namikoshi spent quite a lot of time caring for his sickly mother. He soon discovered that gentle massage techniques could help reduce her pain and discomfort. 

This experience inspired him to learn more about anatomy, science, and massage. By the 1920s, Namikoshi was practicing his own set of techniques on patients. These formative encounters were the first instances of Shiatsu massage. In less than two decades, Namikoshi would open a massage institute to train others in his new methodology.

Shiatsu has noticeable commonalities with reflexology and acupuncture, two therapies often associated with Chinese medicinal practices, but Namikoshi primarily studied Western medicine when creating his new massage technique. 

As such, Shiatsu is a unique blend of both modern and ancient massage. It is a distinctly transformative experience that cannot be replicated with other massage types. However, because of this inherent duality, understanding Shiatsu can be a challenge. 

The Twelve Primary Meridians

Shiatsu is a Japanese type of massage therapy, but it owes quite a lot to Traditional Chinese Medicine. One of the most crucial aspects of Shiatsu massage is manipulating qi via a person’s major meridians.

There are twelve primary meridians, and they are often referred to by their corresponding area or organ name. They are: 

  • Liver
  • Spleen
  • Kidney
  • Gallbladder
  • Stomach
  • Bladder
  • Heart
  • Lung
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Pericardium
  • San Jiao (Triple Burner)

Western audiences may be unfamiliar with the concept of meridians. However, as you may have noticed, many of the primary meridians are associated with major organs. As such, it can be helpful to think of meridians as vital pathways essential to continued health and wellness.

Therapists that perform Shiatsu massage therapy may manipulate specific points along any or all of these meridians to improve the body’s ability to heal itself, relieve digestive upset, increase flexibility, and diminish pain sensations. 

Still, many of the purported benefits of Shiatsu exist as purely anecdotal evidence, but there is some scientific evidence to support some of these claims, especially those relating to pain relief.

Potential Benefits

Now that you know where Shiatsu came from and what beliefs helped shape it, you can begin to analyze this massage type’s potential benefits. Some of the most notable of these benefits include:

  • Improved healing
  • Reduced pain
  • Increased flexibility
  • More energy
  • Lower blood pressure

As you may have noticed, Shiatsu massage shares a couple of benefits with Swedish massage, including the ability to lower a person’s blood pressure and reduce pain. However, while a quality Swedish massage might put you to sleep, the opposite is true of Shiatsu therapies. 

One of the hallmarks of this massage is its ability to raise energy levels and help clients feel more awake and alert. For this reason, Shiatsu could be the ideal pre-work or pre-workout massage to help you wake up and experience a much-needed boost of energy. 

Improved Healing

Massage therapy is associated with several physical benefits, including improved healing. Sports massage and Active Release Techniques (ART) could be more effective at reducing long-term chronic muscle tension and pain. 

Shiatsu is a mild form of tissue stimulation that could function as a happy medium between gentle Swedish massage and intense deep tissue therapy. The pressurized finger and hand motions used during Shiatsu can promote increased circulation, helping white blood cells and lymphocytes travel more quickly to injured areas.

Soft tissue stimulation could also help promote improved lymphatic health. The lymphatic system is a crucial component of the immune system. When you take excellent care of one system, the other one benefits as well. Naturally, the healing benefits of Shiatsu massage can be enhanced.

Clients seeking to boost their immunity and help their bodies heal may also want to consider proper exercise, nutrition, hydration, and rest. Of course, it’s also essential to avoid everyday toxins such as nicotine or alcohol. Healthy habits could be the key to unlocking the fullest benefits of Shiatsu massage.

Reduced Pain

Boosted circulation can result in inflammation, causing temporary pain, stiffness, or discomfort. However, this increased blood flow also facilitates more rapid healing. Consequently, the brief inflammation that occurs after a Shiatsu massage typically leads to fewer aches and pains.

Stress, tension, and tissue damage tend to be the primary causes of muscle pain. Shiatsu massage might not reduce stress levels in the same way that Swedish massage does, but it could be an equally appropriate solution to muscle tension. During Shiatsu, therapists compress muscles, ligaments, and soft tissue to help the body release tension.

Incredibly sore clients may find these techniques to be somewhat painful or uncomfortable. As mentioned above, this type of massage can increase inflammation for a short time, putting extra pressure on nerve endings that may send pain signals to the brain.

This sensation is almost always short-lived. Many people who receive a Shiatsu massage report a significant reduction in chronic pain symptoms, including those with fibromyalgia. Along with pain relief, some clients may rely on Shiatsu to help improve their flexibility and mobility.

Increased Flexibility

As we grow older, our joints begin to lose their range of motion. This is partially due to a decrease in joint fluid production, but it can also occur due to overuse. The bones that make up our joints are cushioned by a combination of synovial (or joint) fluid and squishy collagen. 

The harder you work your body, especially your knees and elbows, the faster this cartilage may begin to wear away. Individuals required to perform repetitive motions as a part of their employment may experience early-onset arthritis because of a lack of inner-joint collagen. Professional athletes can also suffer from sore, achy joints.

Shiatsu massage is almost always tailored to meet the precise needs of clients. Therapists may spend the first session performing preliminary massage techniques and asking various questions about the client’s medical history, current injuries, and desired therapy outcome. 

Those with stiff joints and minimal flexibility can express their concerns and receive a targeted massage to promote fluid movement. After all, reduced muscle tension often means that there’s less pressure on joints, and free joints are happy, mobile, and relatively pain-free.

More Energy

Though some forms of massage can help you reach a state of absolute tranquility, Shiatsu may be better suited to those looking to become energized. The fast-paced nature of Shiatsu and the type of pressurized touch used during sessions make this kind of massage one of the most refreshing options.

Shiatsu may imbue clients with more energy by increasing blood flow, stimulating the nervous system, or simply helping them clear their mind of troubles for a short while. Unlike caffeine, Shiatsu achieves this without increasing a person’s heart rate or blood pressure.

In this way, Shiatsu could be a holistic alternative to sugary, caffeinated beverages that might contribute to the cardiovascular strain. Though it might not be quite as soothing as Swedish massage, Shiatsu can help lower stress levels and help clients calm anxious thoughts and feelings.

Lower Blood Pressure

Stress takes a measurable toll on the body, especially during periods of prolonged anxiety or depression. High levels of long-term stress have been associated with weight gain, heart disease, memory loss, and insomnia. An abundance of stress can also lead to consistently high blood pressure.

Sadly, it can be nearly impossible to avoid life’s many stressors altogether. The average person could employ a wide range of coping mechanisms and tactics to lower their stress levels. Meditation, exercise, and healthy eating are just a few examples. 

When self-soothing techniques don’t cut it, outside support could be the key to shedding the stress and relaxing. Many people who decide to invest in massage therapy do so out of a desire to lower their stress levels. Shiatsu is one type of massage that might help you experience a little relief from life’s daily stressors.

When you’re relaxed, you’re less likely to suffer from high blood pressure. Individuals on prescription medications for blood pressure could use Shiatsu to reduce their dependence on such drugs and enjoy improved heart health. 

Potential Drawbacks

Because Shiatsu massage may lower blood pressure, it might not be a safe option for those who suffer from consistently low blood pressure. Shiatsu massage is slightly more intense than Swedish massage, and clients may feel somewhat stiff or sore immediately after a session. 

In most cases, any feelings of discomfort should disappear within a few hours or a couple of days. Another potential drawback involves a conflict in beliefs. Shiatsu does borrow heavily from centuries-old Chinese medicine and ideas, which could make some clients feel uncomfortable about receiving this kind of massage.

Still, even the most passionate Shiatsu massage therapists take care to ensure their client’s comfort. This extends beyond physical positioning and touch. It is highly unlikely that a certified massage therapist will attempt to convert your current beliefs or expound personal ideologies.

Swedish Massage vs. Shiatsu Massage: Which Is Better?

It’s impossible to make a definitive statement about which massage type is better, as both offer unique benefits and experiences. A Swedish massage can be far more relaxing and gentle than a Shiatsu massage, the latter of which tends to promote increased energy.

Both types of massage require a moderate time commitment, though Shiatsu massages may take longer than Swedish ones. Individuals who feel uncomfortable with the idea of prolonged skin-to-skin touch or partial nudity may feel more comfortable with the slightly less intimate setting provided during Shiatsu.

Though the techniques used during these kinds of massage differ, both types of massage can help reduce pain and lower your blood pressure. As such, the best option for you depends on your availability, desired effect (relaxation vs. invigoration), and preferences.

Conclusion

Swedish massage is one of the most popular types of massage therapy, especially in the United States. It incorporates five distinct techniques to help promote calm, reduce pain, and lower blood pressure. It is typically performed on partially-clothed clients and scheduled in thirty-minute increments.

Shiatsu massage is technically younger than Swedish massage, but its philosophical aspects can be traced back to Ancient China. This massage therapy functions on the belief in qi, or life force, and the bodily meridians. By manipulating a client’s qi via meridian points, therapists hope to improve healing ability, increase flexibility, stimulate a feeling of energy and vitality.

Because these massage types differ in many ways, they defy direct comparison. The best one for you depends on several factors, including your comfort level and your preferences.

Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS

Compliment Your Body, LLC
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY. 10018
(646) 868-8956

Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate chair massage and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. We are local to New York City and pride ourselves on our team of local therapists. All of our therapists are hand-picked and thoroughly vetted. We don’t hire over the phone, we meet our team on the field.

Compliment Your Body believes that care is a circle. We care for our team, our team cares for the participants, and we all care for the community!

For every single in-home or chair massage, Compliment donates three meals to a New Yorker in need through our relationship with Food Bank For New York City.

Commitment – Compassion – Connection – Charity

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Sources

Wikipedia: Tokujiro Namikoshi

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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