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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Walters

Brief History: Massage Therapy

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

The silent healing art of massage has been around since before written record keeping. Cultures around the world have instinctively used their hands, herbs, oils, among other methods to promote physical healing and wellbeing. In these cultures, most often a religious leader, healer, or doctor was the one to administer this healing method. Here are a few mentionable points throughout history which contributed to massage therapy as we know it today.

There is discrepancy regarding how old the art of massage is. Some Chinese medical texts referencing massage date back to 4,000 years ago. The ancient Indian Vedic text, Shatapatha Brahmana, which can date back as far as 3,000 B.C. also mentions "rubbing down" sacrificer for sacrificial fire with sweet smelling substances. .There are additional roots for massage in ancient Egypt, Greece, Roman Empire, Japan, Thailand, and Korea. Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," in 4th century B.C. Greece noted in his writings that physicians needed to be adept in "anatripsis," the Greek term meaning "rubbing up," or their equivalent to "massage" at the time. In Greece, friction massage with olive oil was commonly employed to athletes and oil was provided to all who attended gymnasia and athletic festivals. Later in the Middle Ages, due to the minimal scientific backing on massage therapy's effectiveness and the "folk medicine" stigma, the church denied its acceptability. For more detailed chronology of noteworthy points in massage therapy history, check out ProhealthSys.

In the United States massage therapy as an occupation can be traced back to the 1700s with practitioners called "rubbers" who used manual rubbing and friction to alleviate orthopedic discomfort. Typically these practitioners were women with a particular affinity for hands-on therapy who often assisted surgeons in rehabilitating patients after surgeries and with treating lameness and joint disease. These practitioners were able to independent entrepreneurs in their own and neighboring towns and cities. In the early 1900s however, rubbers became increasingly replaced with masseuses and masseurs who were more highly educated in the art of massage.

Medical Gymnasts, a form of both holistic and scientific massage therapy developed by Pehr Henrich Ling of Sweden, was introduced to the United States in 1850. This form was based in the education of anatomy, physiology, hygiene (health), pathology, movement prescriptions, and work in clinics and hospitals. A model of education which has been built upon to establish the criteria for massage therapists today.

In the early 1900s, masseuses and masseurs worked as doctors' assistants and in their own private practices. In 1916 Agnes Bridget Forbes became the first licensed masseuse in North America. Up to the 1950s, doctors regularly referred patients to Swedish masseurs and masseuses. In 1954, the American Association of Masseuses and Masseurs (modern day American Massage Therapy Association) issued a statement supporting the usefulness of Swedish massage as a natural healing approach and asserting the right for masseuses and masseurs to practice massage independently from organized medicine.

In the 1960s the term, massage therapist began replacing masseuse and masseur, as the latter terms had grown into disrepute when "massage parlor" which was previously used for a massage business, became an allusion to a house of prostitution. The new term of massage therapy helped to give the practice legitimacy as a health profession. Also during this period, focus shifted to whole body wellness and natural healing. As interest in massage therapy revitalized both in demand to receive the service as well as those seeking to practice it, new modalities developed including Rolfing, acupressure, shiatsu, and others which further expanded the realm of massage therapy.

Throughout the course of massage history, cultures and practitioners have built upon past knowledge, adding and refining skills as they acquire them. Likewise, massage therapy has fluctuated in awareness and popularity over history, having a resurgence as our focus shifts into holistic health methods.


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Steiner Education Group. (2014, May). History of Massage. In Massage Core & Variations. (pp. 48). USA: FCNH, Inc.

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