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Swedish Massage vs. Deep Tissue Massage


Woman lying on stationary massage table. She is supine receiving upper body Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage.


Getting a massage is extremely therapeutic, both for the mind and body. It helps with circulation, relaxation, and therefore, healing as well. There’s just something about that spa environment that puts you in an undeniable state of zen. Massage therapy now rightfully gets recognition in the medical realm because it positively affects prenatal/postnatal patients, oncology patients, and especially those with chronic pain and other autoimmune conditions. 

Nowadays, you walk into the massage spa and there are so many options for what type to get - Swedish, deep tissue massage (DTM), Lomi Lomi, and hot stone just to name a few. The list itself can be pretty overwhelming, but it’s safe to say that Swedish Massage and deep tissue are two of the most popular. Here, we will take a more in-depth look into what massage is and what each style can do for you.


Where Did Massage Therapy Originate?

Massages are great in that they are non-invasive, therapeutic, and can be received almost anywhere. The historical significance of massage therapy is clear in that it emerged from ancient Egypt, China, and also India at around the same time. The timeline is muddled with a rough estimate between 3000 and 2500 BCE. This highly valued holistic practice has definitely been given much recognition and evolution since its birth. Egyptians have historically developed reflexology, India created Ayurveda and China brought us acupuncture and acupressure. For cultures that have qi (or their unique perspective of it), the awareness behind energy flow has established its place in holistic therapy.


Benefits of Massage

・Muscle relaxation

・Alleviate pain

・Stress reduction (improving headache and sleep)

・Affect nervous system or certain organ functions

Since its invention, the idea of massage has evolved from an everyday healing tool to an indulgence reserved for the rich and fancy, and now becoming a therapy necessary for self-care. The price of a good massage reflects the extensive training and experience of your therapist and your potential for well-being and satisfaction. But the profound impact it has on the body cannot be overlooked - whether you suffer from chronic pain, participate in sports, or maybe just under any type of stress, this holistic intervention can bring you benefits. 

Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage: Anatomy Overview

The physical touch of massage manipulates a little more than just muscle. Obviously, your skin is the initial and superficial contact, but muscle tissue, some tendons, and myofascia (basically the muscle’s connective tissue) also undergo manipulation as well. Embedded in these tissues are, of course, our blood vessels, nerves, and joints. Much of our tension can be held in the muscle and fascial tissues where therapeutic pressure and stretching can help to restore natural flexibility - any stiffness held within the myofascial network can cause discomfort or sometimes pain. 

Whether your therapist is using instruments or simply their hands, their unique skillset, and knowledge aim to find problem areas that may need attention. 

Massage techniques can vary based on:

・Type of movement used

・Body part being massaged

・How much pressure is applied

・Tools being used

Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage Technique Overview

The experience of massage therapy is subjective as it depends on the therapist’s techniques and if it aligns with the goals you are trying to accomplish in a session. After some delving into the massage therapy world, there are no clear or concrete boundaries between Swedish vs. deep tissue massage for the styles may be fluid and sometimes intersect. For example, DTM can easily incorporate some classic (or other) styles to ease the transition into deeper tissue/tendon work further into the session.

Swedish Massage Basics

This is more commonly known as the “classic” massage, and in some places (such as Europe) may be used interchangeably. Never received a massage before? This style can be easily selected if unsure of what type to get - since it has the main goal of relaxation and improving circulation. Your therapist often looks for tense muscles or “knots” that need work as discomfort can be caused by suboptimal circulation or nerve pain. 

Hand techniques used:





Someone getting a Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage, picture zoomed in focusing on just the entire back. Two hands massaging lower back section in kneading or rubbing type style.


Deep Tissue Massage Basics

There is a common misconception that a DTM would mean extremely heavy pressure and painful maneuvers. To most, the name alone feels intimidating as if meant to bring permanent change through aggression. This is not always the case and the benefits may be worth it for you. 

As beautifully put by Art Riggs in his textbook Deep Tissue Massage: A Visual Guide to Techniques, “In Deep Tissue Massage there is less emphasis on pleasure as the primary goal and more emphasis on altering structure and muscle restrictions… Most clients, once they are accustomed to the benefits of deep tissue work, prefer the increased degree of relaxation, the allocation of pain, and the longer lasting benefits.” 

It is then worth noting that deep muscle work can:

・Alleviate pain

・Improve posture

・Enhance flexibility

・Affect nervous system or certain organ functions

One of the main characteristics of DTM is the ability to accomplish myofascial release. This may be the main characteristic that sets DTM apart from Swedish Massage, in that more attention is given to the fascia tissue and tendons. 


Trials and Studies: Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage

One randomized controlled trial showed that chronic lower back pain was positively influenced by Swedish massage when performed on an elderly group of subjects. Subjects were given 30-minute sessions twice a week for 5 weeks. Pain levels were assessed and showed improvement at both 6 weeks into the study and even up to 15 weeks later. Talk about long-term benefits!

A pilot study on deep tissue massage was performed on a group of subjects with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) which is an inflammatory and debilitating chronic disease that can affect the joints of the ribs, spine, hips, and more. The focus of this pilot study was to reduce “restrictive barriers of fibrous adhesion seen between layers of fascial tissue.” 10 sessions of DTM resulted in lessened fatigue and stiffness therefore influencing their ability to function and mobility of the spine. The overall discussion revealed that DTM also helped with lower back pain. 

My Experience with Massage Therapy

Since dabbling in the holistic and wellness community, I have found myself with a little more confidence in experimenting with what massage can do for me. Although I am still in the mindset that I’m “treating myself”, I always find that I’m already looking forward to my next session once I’m done. I have since then tried Swedish Massage, deep tissue, hot stone, lomi lomi, and pregnancy massage. I have enjoyed deep tissue the most because I enjoy stronger pressure levels and my masseuse did very well releasing my upper back tension. I have more appreciation for my body’s ability to react to how I am feeling and vice versa - I felt the stress melt away during the session and of course was very relaxed afterward. 

Most people would agree that we hold tension in our neck, shoulders, and upper back from stress and this was so noticeable for me to the point that the associate at my chiropractor’s office said they “felt like rocks”. Since then, going for a massage at least a few times a year (hopefully more in the near future) has done wonders. My biggest takeaway from massage therapy is to find a therapist that works best for you and understands what type of relief you’re looking for! If a technique doesn’t feel right during your session, let your masseuse know so they can help your body function optimally in the long run. 

Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage: Conclusion

I hope this information brought some clarity and if it’s pain relief you’re looking for, our resources can help you! Whether you have concurrent health conditions, or just experiencing back pain due to unknown reasons either SM or DTM can help you (Read more on CBD Massage and Trigger Point Massage). Along with incorporating a lower back flexibility program or pain relief tools (such as the QL Claw), either type of massage can earn its place if healing and functionality are your goals. A skilled massage therapist observes your muscles and matches specific techniques to your body’s needs. Take a peek at the following articles on stretching for pain and other useful tactics.


[1] What types of massage are there? Institute of Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare, 2014

[2] Riggs, A. Deep Tissue Massage: A Visual Guide to Techniques. North Atlantic Books, 2007.

[3] Sritoomma, N., Moyle, W., Cooke, M., O’Dwyer, S. The effectiveness of Swedish massage with aromatic ginger oil in treating chronic low back pain in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2014.

[4] Romanowski, M.W., Spiritovic, M., Rutkowski, D., Dudek, A., Samborski, W., Straburzynkska-Lupa, A. Comparison of deep tissue massage and therapeutic massage for lower back pain, disease activity, and functional capacity of ankylosing spondylitis patients: a randomized clinical pilot study. Evidence Based Complement Alternative Medicine, 2017. 

[5] History of Massage Therapy.

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