What is a Swedish body massage?

What is a Swedish body massage?

What is Swedish massage?

Swedish massage is an oil-based manual therapy conceptualized in the 19th century by fencing master Henrik Ling. In this fact sheet, you will discover this massage in more detail, its principles, its techniques, its history, its benefits, how a session is performed, how to become a therapist and finally, the contra-indications.
Often considered the most classic form of bodywork, Swedish massage is a dynamic massage technique that aims to dissolve tension and firm up muscles and joints. Its invigorating and relaxing effect promotes blood and lymphatic circulation and the elimination of toxins, and helps the body regain its natural balance.

The main principles

Swedish massage is a very classic oil massage that requires long, fluid movements (see techniques below). The theoretical basis of this discipline is numerous: its creator, P.H. Ling, was inspired by the knowledge of physiology, anatomy and physical education concepts of the Nordic peoples. He also drew on his experience of movement as a fencing master and his knowledge of the ancestral massage techniques used by medical gymnasts in the Greco-Roman era. A final element completed the basic rules of his approach: the power of thought over the body.

Swedish massage techniques

The technique includes several basic maneuvers that have remained the same for generations:

  • Effleurage: this maneuver often takes place at the beginning and end of the massage. It consists of slow and rhythmic movements towards the heart in order to relax and prepare the individual for the other maneuvers.
  • Kneading: performed with the pads of the thumbs and fingers, this maneuver aims to improve blood circulation and relax the muscles. The soft tissues of the body are stretched and kneaded in depth.
  • Friction: Friction is the most powerful part of the massage. It aims to soften the tissues while breaking up knots. Here, the masseur presses the tissues of the person being massaged with his hand, fingers or thumbs in a circular motion.
  • Percussion: Percussion is a rhythmic beating with the hands, fingers and fists. Starting slowly, the strokes accelerate as the massage progresses and then slow down.
  • Vibration: Vibration stimulates the nerve endings by applying gentle pressure to the tissue with the fingers and hands. This pressure causes rapid tremors that act on the nervous, muscular and lymphatic systems.


These maneuvers allow to solicit all the muscles and to work them in depth. Performed in a specific order, they create effects similar to those obtained through gymnastics.

The benefits of Swedish massage

Many clinical trials have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of Swedish massage. Unfortunately, many of them have been published only in Swedish, which prevents us from considering them in our research. On the other hand, some studies published in English indicate that this type of massage could have effects on various specific ailments. In addition, many studies confirm the effectiveness of massage in general to relieve various ailments. For more information, see the Massotherapy fact sheet.

Reducing back pain

In 2009, a systematic review evaluated the effect of massage in the treatment of low back pain. According to the authors’ conclusions, Swedish massage can be beneficial for patients suffering from acute (4 to 12 weeks) and chronic (more than 12 weeks) back pain. It should be noted that this type of massage would be more effective in combination with exercise or education programs.

Decrease post-operative pain and distress

A clinical trial was conducted to determine the effect of Swedish massage on post-operative symptoms following a laparotomy (abdominal incision). On the day of the operation and over the next 2 days, 146 women received standard care, or standard care plus Swedish massage, or care plus vibration therapy (low frequency sound and vibration). The results show that Swedish massage had a slight effect on postoperative pain and distress, but that it was no greater than for the other 2 procedures.

Contributing to well-being during bone marrow transplantation

In a clinical trial, the effects of 3 types of intervention were evaluated (Swedish massage, therapeutic touch, and friendly visiting). Participants received an average of 15 30-minute treatments. Physiological complications remained the same between the 3 groups. However, patients in the massage group had an easier time resting, communicating with their families, and felt less depressed and anxious.

Reducing pain and tension among nurses

A pilot study demonstrated that it is possible to integrate massage therapy into the hospital setting, and that it helps to reduce perceived pain and tension. To this end, 10 nurses and 2 supervisory staff received 4 to 8 15-minute Swedish massage sessions, at an average interval of 9 days. In addition to the reduction in pain and tension, an increase in relaxation and an improvement in overall mood were reported. However, the lack of a control group limits the scope of this study, as a 15-minute rest session might have been sufficient to produce the same results.

Relieving symptoms of knee osteoarthritis

A pilot study evaluated the effectiveness of Swedish massage in 68 subjects with osteoarthritis of the knee. The results showed that these treatments could lead to improvements in range of motion and functional ability, and reduce pain. The authors conclude that Swedish massage appears to be a safe treatment, particularly as an adjunct to conventional treatments.

Swedish massage – In practice

The specialist

Swedish massage specialists may belong to different professional fields. In fact, this type of massage is widely used in beauty salons, tanning salons, hair salons and resorts. Swedish massage is also practiced in private practice, in health centers and in medical settings.

Course of a session

A Swedish massage session generally lasts one hour. At the first meeting, the massage therapist performs a health assessment to ensure that there are no contraindications to the treatment. Swedish massage is performed on a massage table on a naked person or in underwear, or on a massage chair while remaining clothed. The therapist tries to be guided by the breath of the person being massaged. The therapist uses oil or lotion and performs continuous strokes. The massage usually ends with a rest period of varying length to allow the benefits to be fully appreciated. Swedish massage focuses primarily on the muscles and joints, but also has effects on the nervous and circulatory systems.

Becoming a practitioner

There is no official organization that oversees Swedish massage training. It is the professional associations that ensure that quality standards are met in both training and practice. Swedish massage is taught in massage therapy schools and can also be part of training programs in physiotherapy, orthotherapy, hydrotherapy or sports massage.
In Quebec, the training generally lasts 165 hours. The technique is part of a 400-hour program leading to a massage therapy practitioner diploma. In France, there are some organizations that offer 21 hours of training over 3 days.
One-day or weekend workshops are also available to the general public to learn the technique.

Contraindications of Swedish massage

Although massage is generally considered safe for most individuals, it is not always risk-free and there are some contraindications to consider. For example, some studies indicate that massage can increase blood pressure and lower heart rate and should be preceded and followed by an assessment of these parameters when performed on patients sensitive to these changes. In the case of circulatory disorders (phlebitis, thrombosis, varicose veins), cardiac disorders (arteriosclerosis, hypertension, etc.) and diabetic disorders, it is best to obtain medical advice. Furthermore, it is strongly discouraged to practice massage on the site of an infection, a recent or healing wound, an acute inflammation or bruises.

A brief history of Swedish massage

Swedish massage was developed by the Swedish physician, teacher and poet Per Henrik Ling1 (1776-1839). However, Ling is best known for his method of gymnastics known as “Swedish” (Svenska Gymnastikens). He taught it at the first gymnastics school he founded in Stockholm in 1814, and directed until 1836, the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute.
It was not until 1900 that Swedish massage was recognized throughout the world, thanks in part to his son Hjalmar who continued his teaching. But above all, it was thanks to the British physician Mathias Roth who opposed Ling’s detractors by publishing the first book in English on the foundations of his method. P.H. Ling considered the term “massage” too general to designate his technique and, if we had listened to him, it would be called today: “passive exercises for the patient”. Swedish massage became established in America in the early 20th century, wherever Scandinavian immigrants settled. Today, it is the most popular type of massage in the United States and Europe.