History of Massage Therapy

Massage as a way to heal cuts across all cultural lines and traditions developed in both the Eastern and Western world. Rubbing sore muscles, aches, and pains originates all the way back to the beginnings of man. Cave paintings depict rituals for casting out spirits and diseases, and many times the paintings showed massages.

China has a four-thousand-year tradition of massage therapy and having massage therapy schools. In 2300 BC, massage therapy was included in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine for several chapters and demonstrated that it was a well-developed technique for healing. Modern hospitals in China that specialize in traditional Chinese medicine still have massage as an intricate part of a patient’s treatment. For two thousand years, the Chinese have used Tui Na (better known as Oriental Bodywork Therapy) to treat pain in muscles and joints.

The Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (460–337 BCE), was an advocate of massage. Hippocrates referred to massage as friction or rubbings. In his writings he states, “Rubbing has the effect [of] relaxing, constricting, thickening, and thinning.” Greece had an extensive athletic tradition demanding that physicians keep athletes in top condition for competition. Greek physicians used massage to relieve muscle fatigue after an event. Later the Greeks begin to use massage for intestinal ailments, and by the time the famous physician Galen appeared (131–201 CE), massage had become a mainstay of Greek medicine.

Galen was a physician to Roman gladiators, but his abilities to heal were noticed by the nobility of Rome. Eventually Galen and his massage techniques were ministered to several Roman emperors including Julius Caesar.

India used massage for healing as well, but it was referred to as shampooing. Alexander the Great passed through the region around 327 BCE. His soldiers brought back the techniques when they returned home. Indian massage integrated into Greek, Roman, and Turkish traditions. In modern times, Indian masseurs travel in cities’ common areas offering massages.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian church continued the tradition of massage therapy. Healing touch has always been a part of many religions in aiding the sick, dying, or disabled. Women during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance took on the role of healers and massagers in sisterly orders that focused on caring for the sick. In the Arab world, the physicians Al-Razi and Ibn Sina wrote medical books outlining treatments in which massage therapy was a mainstay.

In the 1800s, medicine became more professional, and formalized nurses were trained in massage therapy. John Kellogg’s (as in Kellogg’s Corn Flakes) nursing school (one of the first nursing schools in the country) had a curriculum that uses a manual called The Art of Massage. Also, in the early part of the twentieth century, nurses gave a nightly backrub to patients to help induce relaxation and ease sleep.

However, by the 1950s, massage therapy had nearly disappeared in the medical establishment. Massage therapy had moved out into the community, and massage therapists began starting their own businesses. In the 1980s, the medical establishment began to actively seek out the services of massage therapists to help supplement treatment programs for an aging population.

Today, massage therapy has moved back into mainstream medicine with the rise of specialists, such as physical therapists, sports medicine therapists, and licensed massage therapists. Massage therapy is an alternative to expensive drug therapies. Research is proving its personal touch matters, and techniques for some disorders is as effective as many common drug treatments.