What Massage Technique Should I Use?

Open up any trade publication or listing of continuing education courses and you will see a vast array of different techniques you can learn. Many of these technique approaches claim to be new “inventions” and completely revolutionary. While there are clearly novel approaches to bodywork treatment, many of these techniques are simply variations on traditional massage techniques that have been around for a long time. With so many different techniques it can be really difficult for the practitioner to know which techniques would be best in each unique client treatment. While the lure of advertising claims like “instant results” and “permanent pain relief” may seem attractive, can we really make those kinds of claims and be taken seriously as a health care field at the same time?

Like the carpenter or artist that uses tools to ply their trade, various techniques are at the root of our success in treating our clients. But what’s the best technique to get the job done? The answer is clearly that it depends. Many years ago I grappled with this issue and recognized that other massage therapists do as well. To help understand and address this issue I developed a 4-part orthopedic massage system that could act as a framework for the clinical decision-making process of what techniques would be appropriate for different clients in each unique clinical situation. Two of these four component parts are directly related to helping the practitioner make an appropriate treatment decision about which techniques will be best for each unique client presentation.

Treatment variety

As the saying goes… “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” This is quite applicable to what we do in massage as well. If you have narrowed your focus to one or two particular treatment techniques, then you may end up taking an ineffective approach and using them on a wide variety of conditions with only limited success. That saying could easily be changed to something like, “If all you have is neuromuscular therapy, everything looks like a trigger point.” Very few people practice with that level of exclusivity on just one technique, but you can end up really narrowing your focus if it is not varied enough.

Clients present with many types of soft-tissue disorders. In addition, one person’s carpal tunnel syndrome can be very different from the next and the treatment approach for one person could be quite wrong for what is needed by someone else.

Another challenge for us if we focus too narrowly on just one or two techniques is an over-emphasis on our lens of bias; and we all have one. The lens of bias is the way we look at client issues and the most effective way to address them. One of the best illustrations of the lens of bias concept came from an article written by Dan Cherkin and his colleagues in 1994. The article was titled Physician variation in diagnostic testing for low back pain. Who you see is what you get.1 They found variation in diagnosis of low back disorders depending on the practice and theoretical focus of the physicians; the lens of bias. We look at various pain complaints and treatment strategies differently depending on this lens of bias that is structured by what we have studied and practiced.


Match the Physiology

The second key component of this system is matching the physiology of the tissue injury with the physiological effects of the treatment technique. In order to choose the most appropriate treatment technique, we must understand the specific physiology of the pain or injury complaint. We must understand WHY we do the things we do. That means we also have to understand the physiological effects of our massage techniques. Over the years I have heard some very interesting (and inaccurate) descriptions and explanations of what certain massage techniques were supposed to be doing (physiologically) to the client. If we base our treatment choices on inaccurate physiology we may be far less effective. But we could also end up doing something that is detrimental and contraindicated or even end up hurting the client as a result.

Take a look at how this might play out in a clinical situation. Suppose you have a client that comes in with lateral forearm pain and weakness. After going through an interview with the client you decide to treat the client with deep friction massage to the proximal wrist extensor tendon attachments at the lateral epicondyle. After several weeks of treatment the client reports that the condition appears to be getting worse.

You might wonder why the deep friction massage was not working in what seemed to be a classic case of lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow). Further consideration of the physiology of the injury condition and the physiological effects of the treatment technique suggest what might be wrong. Suppose in your initial evaluation you didn’t identify weakness in the wrist extensor muscles and note that the pain at the elbow was mild compared to the way it usually presents with lateral epicondylitis.

The client might actually be experiencing radial nerve entrapment in this region, which is a condition also known as “resistant tennis elbow” because of the way its symptoms mimic tennis elbow. You might be applying deep friction to a nerve entrapment disorder and making it worse. Instead it would have been more appropriate to have identified the source of the client’s disorder as a nerve entrapment problem and consequently your treatment choices would have changed and emphasized methods that would help reduce compression on the radial nerve.

Effective clinical massage is a comprehensive practice and having a systematic method for addressing assessment and treatment is at the root of clinical success. If you begin to pay much more attention to WHY you do the things you do and make sure there is a good physiological rationale for each treatment strategy, you are likely to see much greater success in your client treatments.


  1. Cherkin DC, Deyo RA, Wheeler K, Ciol MA. Physician variation in diagnostic testing for low back pain. Who you see is what you get. Arthritis Rheum. 1994;37(1):15-22.

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