Young beautiful and relaxed lady taking spa treatment

The history of massage therapy

Massage has been practised throughout the centuries since the earliest civilisations. It has been used medically as a therapeutic healing treatment and also for invigorating, soothing and beautifying the body.

The word ‘massage’ has its origins in the Arabic word mass or mass’h, which means to ‘press gently’. The Greek word massage means ‘to knead’ and the French word masser means `to 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. These indicate that lubricants may have been used, perhaps for healing, soothing or beautifying purposes.

As early as 3000BC, the Chinese practised massage to cure ailments and improve general health. Records of this can be found in the British Museum. Ancient Chinese books record lists of massage movements with descriptions of their techniques. One of these books, The Cong Fau of Tao-Tse, also contains lists of exercises and massage used to improve general health and well-being. The Chinese found that pressure techniques were very effective on specific points and they developed special techniques called amma (see picture below). This was the beginning of the development of acupressure and acupuncture.

These massage techniques spread to Japan, where they were further developed. The Japanese used similar pressure techniques on specific points, which they called tsubo. This form of massage has been practised over the centuries; it has recently regained recognition and popularity and is now known as shiatsu.

Records show that the Hindus practised massage as part of their hygiene routines. A sacred book called the Ayur-Veda (The Art of Life), which was written around 1800BC, describes how shampooing and rubbing were used to reduce fatigue and promote well-being and cleanliness.

The Egyptians and Persians used massage for cosmetic as well as therapeutic effects. They mixed fats, oils, herbs and resin for care of the skin and beautifying the body and face. Pots and jars containing creams have been found in Egyptian tombs. Cleopatra is said to have bathed in milk and then to have been massaged with aromatic oils and creams by her handmaidens. Perfumed oils were used in three different ways by the ancient Egyptians: as offerings to their gods, as an enhancement of the body`s beauty, making it smell pleasantly, and as the main ingredients for embalming the dead.

The Greeks believed in the cultivation of a healthy mind and body, which is similar to the `holistic approach` practised by many people today. Ritual bathing, massage, exercise or dancing was practised by men and women. They encouraged the pursuit of physical fitness and organised regular sporting events. Massage was used before and after these events to relieve fatigue and aid recovery. Gladiators were massaged before battle to give vigour and promote fitness and health and afterwards to aid recovery, healing and relaxation.

Around 500BC the Greek physician Herodicus used massage oils and herbs to treat medical conditions and disease. Hippocrates, who is now thought of as the father of medicine was a pupil of Herodicus. He began to study the effects of massage on his patients. He concluded and recorded that `hard rubbing binds, soft rubbing loosens, much rubbing causes parts to waste but moderate rubbing makes them grow`. Hippocrates taught his pupils that massage movements should be performed with pressure upwards towards the heart to promote healing. The ancient Greeks had very little knowledge of anatomy and physiology compared to our modern understanding so it is quite remarkable that Hippocrates was able to deduce that upward movements towards the heart were more beneficial.

The Romans followed similar routines to the Greeks, they practised bathing, exercise and massage for health and social relaxation. Large private and public baths were built and used on a daily basis. Servants were always in attendance with oils and creams to massage their masters. Many such baths were built after the Roman conquest of Britain in 55BC such as Bath and St Albans. Massage techniques recorded from those times include manipulations known as squeezing, pinching or pummelling. They relate to the petrissage and percussion movements used today.

Galen (130AD-200AD), a famous doctor during the Roman era, experimented in physiology and discovered that arteries were filled with blood, and not air as previously believed.

Little is known about massage or health throughout the Dark and Middle Ages (500AD to 1400AD). Few records remain from those days of wars, strict religion, superstition and persecution. One Italian woman doctor about 1100AD advised ladies preoccupied with slimming and beauty to bathe in the sea and use deodorants which were made from herbs. Her remedy for losing weight was to be fractioned all over with cow dung mixed in medicinal herbs and then to spend a long period of time sweating heavily in a small room

Following this period came the Renaissance (rebirth) in 1450AD. Interest in the arts and sciences flourished and there was renewed interest in health practises.

In the 16th century, the French surgeon Ambroise Pare (1517-90) promoted and developed the use of massage. He was the personal physician to four French Kings. He is reputed to have successfully treated Mary Queen of Scots with massage. Many other physicians copied his methods and massage was established medically.

Modern massage techniques have evolved mainly from a system developed by a Swedish physiologist Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839). He developed a system of manipulations of friction, kneading, stroking, cupping and clapping into his exercise system. He dedicated his life to helping people in pain and is thought of by many as the father of `Swedish Massage`. He was a conscientious and devoted worker, and realized that it was important to acquire a certain knowledge of anatomy before applying massage and exercise to the body. Of medicine he know little and only treated those conditions he considered to be normal, emphasizing that all other conditions should be reviewed by a doctor. Some think that his work laid the foundation for those who came after him like Dr Johann Mezgner (1839-1909), who developed Lings systems and gave them French names that are still used today (petrissage, Effleurage etc).

The work of Ling and Mezgner established massage as an effective therapeutic treatment.

In England, the eminent surgeon John Grosvenor (1742-1823) used massage to treat joints. Nurses were encouraged to train and use massage for the treatment of patients, under the guidance of doctors. During 1894 a group of women founded the Society of Trained Masseuses to stop the practise of therapeutic massage from being linked to less reputable forms of massage. Rules and regulations for training and examinations for qualifying were established.

During the 1st World War the demand for massage to treat injured service men grew and many more therapists were trained. Membership of the Society of Trained Masseuses grew and in 1920 it amalgamated with the Institute of Massage and Remedial Exercise. In recognition of the valuable work contributed by its members during the war a Royal Charter was granted and the title changed to the Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics.  This further developed into the Chartered Society of Physiotherapist in 1943.

In certain hospitals massage departments were developed, one of these was St Thomas Hospital London which opened a massage department during World War 1 until 1934. Gertrude Beard (1887-1971) was an army nurse who promoted the use of massage for soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (Shell Shock). She later became an eminent speaker on massage and taught at universities in America.

During World War 2 the use of Electro-massage was included as an element of the complex rehabilitation of wounded soldiers. In 1964 members of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists became state registered. This protected and gave status to those qualified therapists who were practising in clinics and hospitals. There was rapid growth in electrotherapy and eventually in the 1960`s/70`s massage ceased to be part of physiotherapy training. Massage became little used as a therapeutic treatment in hospitals, however there was a continuing demand for massage in clinics, health Farms, fitness and leisure centres.

In 1966 the City and Guilds of London Institute explored the possibility of establishing a course in beauty therapy to include massage. The course provided thorough training, background knowledge and a recognised professional qualification that ensured a high standard of practise. In 1968 the first full time course was offered in colleges of further education. The British Association of Beauty Therapists and Cosmetologists, The International Health and Beauty Council and other organisations also developed course and offered certificates and diplomas.

The growth in complementary medicine and the Holistic approach to health has increased the demand for well-qualified practioners, not only in massage but also in aromatherapy, reflexology etc. Courses are now validated by the Health and Beauty Therapy Training Board and therapists must meet the criteria of the National Council of Vocational Qualification.

All that remains is for massage and beauty therapy to become a State-registered profession.


  • An Introductory Guide to Massage – Louise Tucker
  • Body Massage for Beauty Therapists – A GithaGoldberg, L Mc Donald
  • Body Massage Therapy Basics – Mo Rosser
  • Google & Wikipedia