Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has recognized the value of massage therapy in promoting health and wellness for thousands of years. In fact, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, massage is considered one of the major treatment modalities for achieving and maintaining good health, alongside acupuncture, herbal remedies, diet, and exercise.1
In this tradition, massage is seen as having a holistic impact on the client, promoting physical as well as emotional health and well-being.2 In other words, thousands of years of traditional Chinese medicine concur with increasing evidence from Western scientific studies: Massage can be a powerful tool for wellness.34
This guide will help you harness the healing power of Chinese massage by explaining the philosophy behind it as well as the different types of Chinese massage and their benefits.
The philosophy behind therapeutic Chinese massage
Chinese massage, like Western massage traditions, is thought to be useful in alleviating chronic pain and emotional distress, improving mobility and function of the body and supporting healing from illness and injury. The details of how massage is thought to achieve this are a little different than in Western traditions, however.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is thought to function optimally when the fundamental life energy called qi (also spelled chi), can flow freely through the meridians, or energy pathways. Health ailments and pain are often the result of blockages in the flow of qi.5
Stiffness or tension in soft tissue, connective tissue, and joints can disrupt the circulation of qi. Massage can aid in releasing muscle tension and knots and improving flexibility and range of motion, facilitating the healthy movement of qi throughout the body. This in turn helps organs and other body systems function well.
Acupoints are specific locations of the body where qi often collects or pools. These points can be targeted by both acupuncture and acupressure treatment to restore the free flow of qi. In acupuncture, narrow needles are inserted into the surface of the skin to achieve this; in acupressure, finger pressure is used instead.
Types of Chinese massage & their benefits
Traditional Chinese Medicine incorporates several different forms of massage with different goals and techniques, so “Chinese massage” is really an umbrella term for a number of distinct bodywork practices that all originate from the same long tradition.
Depending on the massage therapist, these practices may be offered separately, combined with each other, or even mixed in with massage techniques from Western traditions. Familiarity with the different types of Chinese massage can help you determine what kind of massage you think would benefit you most and communicate with your massage practitioner accordingly.
Tui Na (also called Tuina)
Tuina is a form of Chinese massage therapy often compared to deep tissue massage. In Tuina, the massage therapist uses deep, rhythmic, kneading pressure, stretching, and percussive motions, increasing the circulation of blood as well as qi. The client remains fully clothed.
Zhi Ya (also known as acupressure)
Zhi ya is best known by Westerners as acupressure. In acupressure therapy, the practitioner will apply pressure to specific points of the body to release muscle tension and stimulate a healing response. The practitioner may incorporate kneading motions and may use their hands as well as elbows and feet. Sometimes the therapist will apply pressure on two different points simultaneously while stretching the tissue between them.
Reflexology (often called “Chinese foot massage”)
Reflexology is a distinct bodywork practice (not technically massage, though it’s often referred to as such) in which pressure is applied to specific locations in the feet, hands, and/or ears that are thought to correspond to systems throughout the body, to stimulate healing. If you see an advertisement for “Chinese foot massage,” it is likely referring to reflexology.
Is Chinese massage intense?
Chinese massage in general has a reputation among Westerners as “intense” rather than relaxing, similar to some Western massage styles like trigger point therapy, deep tissue, and sports massage.
This comparison makes sense. Because massage is seen as a fundamental aspect of traditional Chinese medical practice, the goal is effective treatment and prevention of physical and emotional ailments, not providing a client with a luxury service or a feeling of being “pampered” during the time the massage is taking place.6
However, the notion that a massage can either be “relaxing” or “intense” is not very helpful or accurate. The truth is, a massage that involves some temporary intense sensations - sustained pressure on acupoints, for example - can indeed produce relaxation in the client as they experience relief from pain and stiffness. In this case, relaxation may be achieved as a result of therapeutic massage treatment and following it, rather than during the treatment itself.
The Bottom Line
While the philosophical underpinnings in traditional Chinese medicine make Chinese massage styles distinct, the benefits are similar to those experienced by massage clients in a range of traditions: relief from pain and stiffness, enhanced function and flexibility, improved circulation, stress reduction, and greater overall health and well-being.7
Chinese therapeutic massage techniques have stood the test of time as essential health and wellness practices for thousands of years, and modern science is increasingly recognizing their effectiveness.8 For these reasons, it’s well worth exploring Chinese massage as a component of your own health and wellness routine.
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3“Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
4“Massage therapy has short-term benefits for people with common musculoskeletal disorders compared to no treatment: a systematic review”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26093806
5“The Benefits of Chinese Tuina”:https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-benefits-of-tuina-88932
6“What Can Chinese Massage Therapy Do For You? We Investigated”:https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-is-chinese-massage
7“What is Chinese Massage?”:https://urban.co/editorial/what-is-chinese-massage/
8“Traditional Chinese acupressure massage ameliorates systemic inflammatory responses and joint mobility limitation after acute repeated jumping exercise”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31488342