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Massage 101

With more than 100 massage techniques performed throughout the world (not to mention the combinations thereof), there truly is a massage therapy to suit every need. Here, we provide the basics on five of the most popular.

<p>Deep tissue massage can be used to effectively treat a repetitive strain injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome.&nbsp;</p>

If you think nail technicians have had a rough time overcoming the “Madge the Manicurist” perception and earning their rightful place as primary salon service providers, think about what massage therapists have gone through. In his 26 years as a massage therapist, Elliott Greene, a Silver Spring, Md., practitioner and former president of the American Massage Therapists Association, has truly seen and heard it all about his profession.

“When I got into the industry in the 1970s, massage therapy was an eclectic thing to pursue,” Greene says. “For the most part, the public was not familiar with what it was, and people had bad perceptions of it because of the association between massage and adult entertainment. At the time, people were using massage parlors to provide a cover for other, illegal businesses.”

In the ‘80s, he continues, a growing interest in personal fitness increased the public’s awareness of massage and its health benefits, but ironically perceptions leapt from the gutter to the homes of the rich and famous, as massage gained a reputation as a luxury, pampering service.

By the mid-90s, however, growing awareness of integrated health care and wellness as a way of life has put massage therapy in its rightful place as a legitimate mainstream health and lifestyle service validated by many scientific studies that prove its therapeutic benefits. And as its popularity has grown, so too has interest in the different types of massage techniques used to address specific needs, which range from stress reduction to relief of chronic pain, from healing injuries to athletic training.

<p>Shiatsu is similar to acupuncture, but therapists use their hands, fingers, and arms instead of needles to stimulate key points in the&nbsp;body's internal energy channels and correct imbalances. This technique can be easily adapted to both hands and feet.&nbsp;</p>

Here, we’ve put together brief descriptions and discussions of today’s most popular massage therapies which can be incorporated into nail services. These are not meant as the final word on each of these techniques – a full explanation of each would require a textbook. Rather, they are meant to provide you with a basic understanding of the differences between the therapies as well as how each could be applied to the hand and feet. Use this as a starting point from which to seek more information about those that most interest you and are applicable to your business.

Swedish Massage

The most well-known of Western massage techniques, Swedish massage remains one of the top five most popular massage modalities, and the one nail technicians are most familiar with. Named for Swedish massage pioneer Peter Ling, Swedish massage uses five main strokes: effleurage (long, gliding or sweeping strokes to warm up, relax, and connect body parts), petrissage (a grasping, kneading movement that literally picks up the muscles), tapotement (a hacking, chopping motion done firmly with a cupped hand), vibration (vibration or trembling of the fingertips or hands while pressing gently on one spot), and friction (a light or firm rubbing back and forth of the hands across the skin).

“In various combinations, these strokes improve relaxation, relieve muscle tension, and promote circulation,” Greene says. While Greene adds that Swedish massage is most effective therapeutically as a full body treatment, the combination of smooth, gliding strokes with ones that are more vigorous and stimulating certainly will warm clients’ hands or feet, help reduce swelling by guiding fluids out of the extremities, and relax the muscles and joints.

To use Swedish massage on nail clients, licensed massage therapist Terri Werner of Paoli, Pa.-based Health Bridge, offers these tips: “You could do some cross-fiber stretching and kneading of the forearm, followed by long strokes toward the elbow. Then you could do gentle range of movement to the wrist and knead the pads of the hand, stroking between the bones, and rub and gently stretch each finger.

“Kneading, rolling, and vibratory techniques increase the circulation and clear out the toxins, while the stroking and long gliding strokes nourish and rejuvenate the skin.” The same techniques can be used on the feet, ankles, and lower legs.”


Based on a 5,000-year-old Chinese medical tradition, Shiatsu is a Japanese art that has its roots in acupuncture and the traditional form of Japanese massage, Anma. Shiatsu (literally, shi means finger and atsu means pressure) therapists use their hands, fingers, and arms to stimulate key points in the body’s internal energy channels, called meridians, and correct imbalances.

“Shiatsu is similar to acupuncture, but therapists use their hands instead of needles,” Werner says, explaining that the human body seeks a natural state of balance. When external forces, such as stress, or internal forces, such as disease, put pressure on the internal system, they create obstructions on the corresponding meridians that must be released for the body to balance itself once again.

“Shiatsu treatments can release deep-seated tensions that may be blocking the flow of internal energy, or chi,” she continues. “As this energy becomes more balanced, natural healing and functioning can occur with the whole person. The treatments affect the autonomic nervous system, the levels of endorphins (the body’s natural pain reliever), and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood and well-being.”

According to Bob Yoder, a licensed massage therapist in New York City, the source points that are used to balance the meridians are found on the hands, wrists, feet, and ankles. “From the elbows and knees down are the most beneficial parts of the meridians to work,” he says. “For example, you make contact with most of the meridians working the fingertips and around the nails.”

Deep Tissue Massage

“Deep tissue massage releases chronic patterns of tension using deeper finger, thumb, or hand pressure and slow strokes either going with or going across the grain of muscles, tendons and fascia (connective tissue) on specific areas of the body,” Greene explains. “The muscles in the body are organized in layers, so if someone has pulled a muscle, working on the top layer may not be adequate because the affected may be on the second or third layer.”

However, Yoder cautions that the word “deep” can be deceptive. “People think that means there has to be a lot of pressure going deep and hard,” he says. “But really, you’re working the attachment first. For example, if you’re going to do a deep tissue massage on the bicep, first you would work the attachments at the shoulder and bone, because when you release those attachments it takes the pressure off the belly of the muscle. Then you can go in and work at a deeper level rather than starting at the top layer of the muscle and working hard through it.”

Deep tissue massage is appropriate only for a specific complaint, such as tendon or muscle pain in the hand from a repetitive strain injury. “In the hands, the muscles that move the thumb can develop knots, and a carpal tunnel or tendonitis massage might be appropriate,” Greene notes, cautioning that effective “treatment” of carpal tunnel (as opposed to a symptom-alleviating hand massage) includes massaging the entire arm and shoulder on a frequent basis.

Sports massage is another highly popular massage technique that is actually a variation on the deep tissue massage. Geared to anyone who uses their body actively, sports massage uses the five basic strokes for either prevent, maintenance, or injury, treatments. He cautions that these techniques reinforce a massage therapist’s need for training in anatomy and physiology to prevent causing additional pain or muscle damage.

Neuromuscular Massage

Also called Trigger Point Myotherapy, neuromuscular massage treats deep, aching muscle tenderness, loss of range of motion, referral of pain to other areas of the body, and muscle weakness all caused by painful irritated areas of muscle. These so-called “trigger points” are caused by a buildup in the muscle of toxins and molecular waste.

To feel just what a pressure point is, press on the fleshly area between the base of your neck and your shoulder until you find one of these hard, knotted areas.

“Until that trigger point is released or eliminated by flowing oxygen and blood through it, the pattern may persist,” Greene explains.

Trigger points can appear in the legs and forearms, and sometimes in the hands and feet, Greene says. To work on such a spot, Greene and Yoder say they apply direct pressure for anywhere from three to 10 seconds (depending on the technique) directly on the trigger point with the fingers, thumb, or elbow.

“Visualize putting a kink in a hose, then what happens when you let the kink go. Well, in trigger point therapy we slow down the circulation in an area in a safe way and let the pressure build up. Then when we let go the fresh blood and oxygen rush through and knock out the toxins,” says Yoder.


While reiki really doesn’t qualify as a massage technique – it’s really a type of energy therapy – Reiki is becoming increasingly popular in salons and spas offering massage therapy because it addresses mental and emotional conditions as well as the physical state, says Werner. “If you do just a Reiki session, you’re not massaging,” she explains. “You’re just placing your hands above or lightly on the person to balance her energy field.”

Alone or as an adjunct to massage, Reiki can induce deep relaxation, relieve pain and reduce swelling, and bring the body and emotions back into balance. A Japanese word, Rei is best translated as “universal life force,” while ki is “energy”. Reiki stems from the Eastern philosophy that our negative thoughts and emotions collect in various locations throughout the body and its energy field, or aura, and restrict the ki and the organs near these areas.

As Reiki flows through these unhealthy areas, it breaks up and washes away these negative feelings lodged in the unconscious body and allows a normal healthy flow of ki to resume. When ki returns to health, the surrounding organs, too, resume functioning in a balanced, healthy manner.

According to Werner, Reiki incorporates specific hand placements, and it can be done on the shoulders, arms, knees, or feet as well as on the full body. “The energy will go where it’s needed,” she says. “It deeply relaxes you and your muscles and organs, so it certainly has all the benefits of massage.”

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