History of Massage Therapy | Massage Therapy Journal (2023)

By Patricia J. Benjamin, August 27, 2015

How much do you know about the history of your profession? If you’re like most massage therapists, just some general references to ancient Greeks and a man from Sweden named Ling. Even less is understood about how the massage therapy profession evolved in America—many believe it started in the 1970s in California.

The real story of how massage therapists arrived at where we are today is full of countless surprises and interesting characters, much like a family history going back generations. We can see ourselves in our predecessors and, through understanding our history, recognize the forces that shaped who we are at this moment as a profession.

Having an underlying sense of history is importantfor massage therapists emerging as modern health andwellness professionals. Knowing where you came from,the core of your professional identity, provides a strongfoundation from which you can move into the futurewith integrity.

Recounting former times also spurs “ahamoments” as the world of the past opens up and we understandfor the first time how things we see today cameto be. Our profession begins to make more sense—thediversity, the independent streak, the holistic viewpoint,the affinity for natural healing, and the singularity of ourvocation as massage therapists.

(Video) History of Massage in the U.S.

Tracing the professional lineage of massage therapistsin America today takes us back to colonial times andcontinues from there through generations of practitionersadvancing to the present day. Progress through thedecades was impacted by national and world events, advancesin science and medicine, and religious and socialmovements—the larger context in which massage therapistsof the past lived and worked.

Follow along as I take you through ten of the mostinfluential moments in the massage therapy profession’shistory.


We begin in colonial times. As an occupation, massagetherapy dates back to the 1700s, where forerunners oftoday’s massage therapists were called rubbers. Rubberswere experts in treating orthopedic problems with manualrubbing and friction. You might look at the influencethey had on massage therapy this way: They establishedthe occupation from which the profession of massagetherapy later developed.

Medical rubbers were typically women hired by surgeonsto assist with the rehabilitation of patients aftersurgery, and with treatment of lameness and jointdiseases. Rubbers had little education, but possesseda knack for hands-on therapy. Their basic techniqueswere simple, but were modified to produce different effects.Rubbers incorporated joint movements into theirtreatments to increase range of motion, and to get lamepatients walking again.

Before medical licensing laws limited their practices,some rubbers worked independently in competitionwith regular doctors. They found clientele in their townsand city neighborhoods, chiefly by word of mouth, andmany became successful entrepreneurs. This was oneof the few occupations by which women could make aliving outside of the home in those times. Rubbers weregradually replaced by the better educated and morehighly skilled masseuses and masseurs in the early1900s.


A different type of manual therapist called a medicalgymnast came to America in the 1850s and elevatedhands-on treatment to a new level. Medical gymnastsused a system of movement and manipulation developedby Pehr Henrich Ling of Sweden to promote health, preventdisease, and treat illness and injuries. They weregraduates of a two-year education program at the RoyalCentral Institute in Sweden (est. 1813) that includedstudy of anatomy and physiology, hygiene (health), pathology,movement prescriptions, and work in clinicsand hospitals. This model of education was used in establishingtraining schools for medical gymnasts in theUnited States, like the famous Posse Gymnasium in Boston,which opened in 1890.

The Swedish movement approach was scientific andholistic, two principles that remain deeply ingrained inthe field today. Ling insisted that movement and manipulationprescriptions be based on anatomy and physiology,and be proven by clinical trial and measurement.He also believed in the unity of the person—body, mind,and spirit—and that movement profoundly affects thewhole person in maintaining or restoring health. Medicalgymnasts laid the groundwork for a unique professionof highly skilled hands-on specialists outside ofconventional medicine.

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The titles masseuse and masseur became common inthe 1880s, referring to manual therapists trained inthe soft tissue manipulations developed by a Europeanmedical doctor named Johann Mezger. Mezger outlinedthe classic categories of massage techniques: effleurage,petrissage, friction and tapotement. Vibration wasadded later. Medical gymnasts soon integrated massageinto their overall approach, a combination sometimesreferred to as mechanotherapy.

By the early 1900s in America, massage had becomethe dominant term for manual therapy in general, andmasseuse and masseur for hands-on specialists educatedin the traditions of Ling and Mezger. Masseusesand masseurs continued to work both within conventionalmedicine as doctors’ assistants, as well as in privatepractice as independent practitioners. Ohio wasthe first state to regulate massage as a “limited branchof medicine,” and Agnes Bridget Forbes became the firstlicensed masseuse in North America in 1916.


Massage became linked with magnetism and magnetichealing in the latter 1800s. Magnetism was thought tobe a divine healing force transmitted to an ailing patientthrough touch and motion. Magnetic healers would eitherpass their hands over the body without contact, orin some cases use light touch and stroking to stimulatevital energy. Magnetic masseurs combined this earlyform of energywork with standard massage. The ideathat massage could impart a vital power reinforced itsholistic nature, and expanded the notion of massage toinclude energy therapy. By the 1900s, the concept ofmagnetism had largely disappeared from massage textbooks.


Massage and hydrotherapy have a long association.Hydropathy required bath attendants to apply a lowskilledtype of rubbing and friction as part of the treatments.This is the origin of many spa services today,such as body wraps and scrubs. When water treatmentswere put on a more scientific basis in the late 1800s,they were referred to as hydrotherapy.

Massage and hydrotherapy were often combined incomprehensive treatments for a variety of illnesses andinjuries, and masseuses and masseurs were employedto give them. Independent massage practitioners beganto include forms of hydrotherapy in their services, particularlydifferent types of baths. Health reformers inthe 1890s advocated for such natural approaches to promotegood health, and as alternatives to conventionalmedicine.


The familiar full-body general massage given on a paddedtable with the client under a drape was unheard ofprior to the 1880s. General massage had its origin in thefamous Rest Cure for a condition called neurasthenia, akind of debilitating melancholy common among societyladies in the late 19th century. The most extreme formof the Rest Cure involved forced bed rest, liberal feedingand elimination of all stimulation thought to agitate thepatient mentally.

During the bed rest period, full-body general massagewas given for circulation and to increase the patient’sappetite, a kind of substitute for exercise. TheRest Cure eventually fell out of favor, but a generation ofwell-connected women and men had been introducedto general massage for convalescence after an illness,rejuvenation and as an overall health measure.

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Thepopularity of general massage greatly increased the demandfor independent masseuses and masseurs in theearly 1900s. This type of general massage is a forerunnerof today’s wellness and relaxation massage.


Swedish massage had evolved by the 1930s. This wasnot what we call Swedish massage today, but a wholesystem of physiotherapy. Swedish masseuses and masseursutilized soft tissue manipulation, movements,hydrotherapy and electrotherapy for applications rangingfrom general health promotion to treating diseasesto rehabbing injuries. They worked as physiotherapistsin conventional medicine (prior to physical therapy licensingin the 1950s), and in YMCAs, public baths andspas, and beauty parlors. Many opened private practicesin their neighborhoods in the form of health clinicsand reducing salons.

Doctors regularly referred patients to Swedish masseusesand masseurs up to the 1950s. During this sametime, the American Association of Masseuses and Masseurs,(established in 1943 and now the American MassageTherapy Association), began to lay the foundationfor the current profession in the United States by establishingeducational and ethical standards for the field.

In 1954, AAMM issued a policy statement asserting theright of masseuses and masseurs to practice independentlyfrom organized medicine, and reaffirming theusefulness of Swedish massage as a natural healing approach.


The terms massage therapy and massage therapist began to replaceformer designations for the profession in the 1960s. By thattime, the titles masseuse and masseur had fallen into disrepute,and massage parlor, once an innocent label for a massage business,alluded to a house of prostitution.

In 1958, the AAMM changed itsname to the American Massage & Therapy Association, and fromthat point on encouraged calling the profession massage therapyand practitioners massage therapists. The “&” was dropped in1983, reinforcing the identity of the unified profession as massagetherapy. The term therapy was defined generally as promoting goodhealth and encompassed the whole range of applications envisionedby Ling over a century earlier.

The title massage therapist was readilyunderstood by the general public, and helped give the field legitimacyas a health profession.

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The field of massage therapy went through a period of transformationbetween 1970 and 2000. The counterculture movement of the1960s spawned a generation looking for greater meaning in theirlives, and revived an interest in natural healing.

The human potentialmovement, epitomized by the Esalen Institute in California (est.1962), fostered new types of manual therapy, such as Rolfing andEsalen massage. Hands-on approaches from Asia—including acupressurefrom China, shiatsu from Japan, and Ayurvedic massagefrom India—were embraced in America.

The term bodywork wascoined to encompass the diversity of manual therapies that surfacedin this period. The wellness movement, fitness boom, concern aboutunhealthy stress, and growth of alternative medicine all contributedto a rising public interest in massage therapy, which expanded itsscope to include diverse massage modalities.

Escalating consumerdemand for massage therapy, and an increasing number of men andwomen wanting to become massage therapists, revitalized a fieldthat had become somewhat stagnant.


The emerging massage therapy profession took more definitive shapein the 1990s as a variety of organizations were created to further solidifythe profession’s foundation, including The Massage TherapyFoundation, for example, whose focus on research has helped betterquantify the benefits of massage therapy. Additionally, the massagetherapy profession saw more and more states pass licensinglaws, starting with 17 in the 1990s and increasing to 45 today.

Thisregulation, among other things, like more rigorous research and increasedconsumer awareness, has worked to further legitimate themassage therapy profession within the health and wellness arena.

Understanding some of the pivotal moments in the massage therapyprofession’s history is one way to get a better grasp of where weare today. These 10 moments don’t represent the entire scope of thehistory of massage therapy, but do give you a general overview ofhow the profession developed which can help us better navigatethe future.

(Video) Massage Therapy and Acute Care - Research Perch


What is the history of massage? ›

The history of massage therapy dates back to 3000 BCE (or earlier) in India, where it was considered a sacred system of natural healing. Used by Hindus in Ayurveda “life health” medicine, massage therapy was a practice passed down through generations to heal injuries, relieve pain, and prevent and cure illnesses.

Who first invented massage? ›

We know now that Dutch doctor Johann Georg Mezger around 868 invented Swedish massage. Although some literature credits this to Per Henrik Ling, a general medical practitioner during the 19th century. Sometimes we document Ling as The Father of Massage.

What is the importance of knowing the history of massage? ›

Having an underlying sense of history is important for massage therapists emerging as modern health and wellness professionals. Knowing where you came from, the core of your professional identity, provides a strong foundation from which you can move into the future with integrity.

What is massage Journal? ›

AMTA's award-winning publication focuses on massage therapy techniques and research, practical self-care tips, and business practices. Each issue of Massage Therapy Journal features research-based articles on the practice of massage to provide you the most up-to-date information to help serve your clients.

What is the origin word of massage? ›

The word massage was originally a French term meaning “friction of kneading.” It is believed to be derived from the Arabic massa, meaning “to touch, feel, handle.” Another possibility is that it comes from the Portuguese verb amassar, meaning “knead,” based on the Latin massa, “mass, dough.”

What is the full meaning of massage? ›

: manipulation of tissues (as by rubbing, kneading, or tapping) with the hand or an instrument for relaxation or therapeutic purposes. gave him a neck massage. massage.

Who is the father of massage therapy? ›

In the early 1800s, Peter Henry Ling (also Per Henrik Ling) was perhaps the first to discover what countless others have since learned in the past centuries: massage is critical for healing pain. Though somewhat controversial, Ling is widely considered the "Father of Massage".

What is the oldest massage? ›

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.

What is the 1st rule of massage therapy? ›

First do no harm – to yourself!

What is the main purpose of massage therapy? ›

Benefits of massage

Reducing stress and increasing relaxation. Reducing pain and muscle soreness and tension. Improving circulation, energy and alertness. Lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

What is Introduction to massage? ›

Massage: The application of soft-tissue manipulation techniques to the body, generally intended to reduce stress and fatigue while improving circulation. The many variations of massage account for several different techniques.

What is a massage therapist called? ›

The term masseuse is a French word that refers to a female who practices massage. (Males in the industry were known as masseurs.) However, due to certain unsavory connotations (as well as the need for more gender neutral terminology), both male and female massage practitioners go by the term “massage therapist”.

What are the 3 types of massage? ›

You'll most often see the Swedish massage, the Deep Tissue massage, and the Sports massage offered at a professional massage studio near you. These are the most popular options that offer a variety of strokes and pressure. Take a closer look at these options and what they offer.

When was the massage invented? ›

Ancient China (2700 B.C.E.): The earliest date of origin for massage therapy was back in 2700 B.C.E, which was about 4700 years ago.

What are the six types of massage? ›

6 Types of Massage Therapy You Should Know About
  • Sports Massage. Sports can be rough on our muscles. ...
  • Therapeutic. Daily stress in our lives can manifest in our minds and our muscles. ...
  • Shiatsu. ...
  • Trigger Point. ...
  • Deep Tissue. ...
  • Swedish.

What country did massages originate from? ›

The earliest date of origin for massage therapy goes back to 2700 BCE in ancient China.

What are the five elements of massage? ›

These elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These five components are unique and used by the massage modalities due to their reflective connection with the natural world.

What are the 5 Classic massage types? ›

5 Different Types of Massage Therapies and Their Benefits
  • Swedish Massage.
  • Deep Tissue Massage.
  • Lymphatic Massage.
  • Sports Massage.
  • Oncology Massage.
14 Aug 2018

What is the most famous massage? ›

Swedish massage is arguably considered the most popular massage type, appearing on a majority of spa menus worldwide. This Western massage utilizes the following techniques—effleurage (stroking), friction (rubbing), petrissage (kneading) and tapotement (rhythmic choppings)—for a truly relaxing spa treatment experience.

What is the massage capital of the world? ›

Thailand has long been known as the massage capital of the world.

Who is the best masseuse in the world? ›

U.S. massage therapist Chaz Armstrong won the gold medal in chair massage and a silver medal in overall best massage at the World Championship in Massage 2021 competition in Copenhagen, Denmark.

What is the lifespan of a massage therapist? ›

Reports vary but word on the street is that the average career for a massage therapist lasts anywhere between 5-8 years!

What was the first massage chair? ›

The first electric massage chair was designed in 1954 by Nobuo Fujimoto. Fujimoto made several versions of the chair from scrap materials before satisfied with the final chair design.

Why can't you take a shower after a massage? ›

By taking a shower immediately after your massage therapy session, you will wash off the massage oils. These massage oils are not yet completely absorbed by the skin cells.

Is it rude not to tip a massage therapist? ›

Since tips are standard protocol for massage therapists, you should assume a 20 percent tip in any massage or spa treatment situation (unless a self-employed therapist specifically tells you their rate is all-inclusive). Not sure? When in doubt, always ask, says Post, who says tipping is always appreciated.

What should you not do during a massage? ›

What NOT to Say / Do with Your Massage Therapist
  • Ask your massage therapist to go see a movie / come to your house / etc. ...
  • Excessive noises. ...
  • Comment on our looks/attractiveness. ...
  • Poke your head out of the room to let us know you're ready. ...
  • Start undressing while we are still in the room. ...
  • Touch us.
3 Jul 2020

What are the 5 benefits of massage? ›

Massage therapy from a licensed practitioner can:
  • Lower stress. The long-term effects of stress can take emotional and physical tolls. ...
  • Increase immune function. ...
  • Boost mental health and wellness. ...
  • Manage pain. ...
  • Improve physical fitness.

What is the philosophy of massage therapy? ›

The basic philosophy of massage therapy embraces the concept of vis Medicatrix naturae, which is aiding the ability of the body to heal itself, and is aimed at achieving or increasing health and well-being. Touch is the fundamental medium of massage therapy.

What are the main types of massages? ›

10 Types of Massage (& Why You May Need Them)
  • Swedish Massage. A Swedish massage is perhaps the most well-known type of massage, ideal for a first-time experience. ...
  • Deep Tissue Massage. ...
  • Aromatherapy Massage. ...
  • Hot Stone Massage. ...
  • Shiatsu Massage. ...
  • Sports Massage. ...
  • Prenatal Massage. ...
  • Chair Massage.
12 Aug 2022

What is massage classification? ›

On the basis of means of imparting mechanical energy, massage can be classified as manual massage and mechanical massage. Massage administered by operator using his / her hand is called manual massage whereas the use of a mechanical device to deliver mechanical energy to the body is known as mechanical massage .

How many types of massages are there? ›

There are over 80 known massage types out there, each with its own unique characteristics.

What is a massage therapist salary? ›

The average massage therapist salary in South Africa is R 300 000 per year or R 154 per hour. Entry-level positions start at R 132 000 per year, while most experienced workers make up to R 318 000 per year.

What is the difference between massage and massage therapy? ›

Spa massage and medical massage may feel similar, but their techniques differ. During a spa massage, the techniques likely focus on relaxation. A medical massage therapist will use a broader set of therapies for muscle health and recovery. It includes specific follow-up recommendations.

What's the difference between a masseuse and massage? ›

A massage therapist and a masseuse perform the same work – the only difference is that the term "masseuse" is gender-specific, referring to women.

What are the 5 stroke of massage? ›

Swedish technique consists of five basic strokes: effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), friction, tapotement (percussion) and vibration, though all of these strokes are not used on every part of the body.

What are the 8 qualities of massage? ›

What 8 Qualities Make a Good Massage Therapist?
  • 1) Superb Time Management. ...
  • 2) An Empathetic Approach. ...
  • 3) Dedication to Training and Professional Development. ...
  • 4) Physical Stamina. ...
  • 5) Soft Skills. ...
  • 6) Financial Management Skills. ...
  • 7) A focus on the Client as a Whole. ...
  • 8) Active in Professional Organisations.
21 Jan 2019

What is the main base of massage? ›

Basic Massage

The first thing that every student must master is “the basics.” The four basic massage strokes are effleurage-(light or deep stroking), petrisage-(kneading), tapotement-(gentle slapping), and friction. Effleurage is meant for relaxation and the release of tension.

What are the 12 types of massage? ›

12 Types of Massage: Which is Right for You?
  • Swedish Massage. Swedish massage is a gentle full-body massage, ideal for those who are new to massage, stressed, and sensitive to touch. ...
  • Hot stone massage. ...
  • Deep tissue massage. ...
  • Sports massage. ...
  • Trigger Point Massage. ...
  • Reflexology. ...
  • Shiatsu massage. ...
  • Thai Massage.

What are the 3 massage mediums? ›

Below I am going to discuss the three most frequently used products, their benefits and how they work.
  • Massage Oil: Massage oil is a very common type of medium used in the industry. ...
  • Lotions. Lotions are more commonly used in high friction treatments, such as facial and foot massages. ...
  • Wax.

What is the best massage method? ›

So, without further ado, here are five of the most popular massage therapy techniques used today.
  • Kneading. ...
  • Effleurage (Light/Deep Stroking) ...
  • Rubbing. ...
  • Tapotement or Tapping. ...
  • Vibration Or Shaking.

What is the general history of massage in 1450 AD? ›

1450 AD: Renaissance reawakens interest and study into massage. 1813 AD: Per Henrik Ling founded Royal Central Gymnastic Institute in Sweden and is credited with devising an exercise regime and massage techniques. 1878 AD: Dutch physician Dr Johann Mezgner devises a system of massage and names strokes in French.

What is the earliest evidence of massage? ›

The earliest evidence of massage being used is found in the cave paintings of ancient cave dwellers. These wall drawings and paintings show people massaging each other. Various artefacts also found contain traces of fats and oils mixed with herbs.

Who first recorded massage in 3000bc? ›

The history of massage started during the 3000 BC when the Chinese wrote Cong-Fu of the Tao-Tse, the oldest book written about massage which was later translated to French in the 1700s. In 2760 BC, Nei Ching or the Yellow Emperor's Esoteric Classic discussed therapeutic touch.

Who invented the first massage chair? ›

The first electric massage chair was designed in 1954 by Nobuo Fujimoto. Fujimoto made several versions of the chair from scrap materials before satisfied with the final chair design.

What is the framework of massage? ›

Massage Therapy: A Biopsychosocial Framework

A biopsychosocial framework helps put into context the interconnected and multidirectional interaction between: physiology, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, culture, and beliefs.

Is there scientific evidence for massage therapy? ›

There's some evidence that massage therapy may have benefits for anxiety, depression, and quality of life in people with HIV/AIDS, but the amount of research and number of people studied are small.

Is massage scientifically proven? ›

New research from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has confirmed the scientific benefits of massage. It has been proven to improve vascular function in people who don't exercise.

How was a massage in ancient times proven? ›

Eastern Influence. The holistic approach, Ayurveda, used in India, traveled through centuries and eventually found its way to ancient Egypt. Researchers discovered tomb paintings depicting Egyptians practicing massage therapy, proving the practice had been adopted into their culture by 2500 BCE.


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