Differences Between Shiatsu & Swedish Massage

Massage therapy has as many varieties as options of fruits and vegetables at a farmer's market. Two common types of massage, shiatsu and Swedish, are often offered in day spas and physical therapy clinics, which are used to promote a deeper sense of relaxation, rejuvenate your energy level and improve your healing process. Understanding the differences between both massage modalities can help you decide which one you want for your next treatment.


Swedish massage did not originate in Sweden and wasn't invented by a Swede, despite its name. In Sweden and the rest of Europe, the term "classic massage" is used instead. Although the exact origin of Swedish massage is unknown, the term may have stemmed from Swedish Movement System, which was a foundation of physical education and medicine in the early 1800s in Sweden. In the last half of the 19th century, the name was transposed to Swedish Massage System, according to Robert Noah Calvert, founder and CEO of "Massage" magazine.

Although shiatsu massage -- literally meaning "finger pressure" -- originated in Japan, seitai shiatsu is one of the more common modalities used in the United States. The seitai method, which means "whole body," was developed after World War II by various practitioners, according to Dr. Kuniake Imoto. It focuses on the healing the body as a whole rather than just certain parts.

Structural Anatomy Vs. Meridians

Differences Between Shiatsu & Swedish Massage

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While Swedish massage focuses on stroking muscles, connective tissues and joints, shiatsu massage uses the traditional Chinese acupuncture meridians as a guide to address pain and illnesses. Swedish massage practitioners learn to massage based on traditional human anatomy, identifying the origin and insertion of muscles and understanding how joints move. Shiatsu practitioners study the meridians of the entire body and compress specific points of the body, such as the back shu points, which run along the sides of the spine. These points connect to every meridian in the body, serving as the starting point for shiatsu bodywork, according to acupuncturist and shiatsu therapist Thomas Crooks.

Different Strokes

In shiatsu, the practitioner applies pressure, rubbing in a circular motion at specific locations on the body. The meridian point is rubbed vigorously five to six times before moving to another meridian point. Swedish massage, however, has five foundational strokes that every classic massage therapist should master. Effleurage refers to the long, gliding strokes that spread down from the neck to the lower back and back up to the shoulders and neck. This technique can also be applied to the limbs. Petrissage involves lifting the muscle and fasciae gently away from the bone, by kneading, squeezing and compressing the muscles. Friction is applying deeper transverse movements near the joints and bony parts, such as the spine and the knee. Tapotement is using light percussion, such as tapping, chopping and cupping, to invigorate the body. Vibrating or shaking is the gentle rocking of the body to stimulate better circulation.

To Drape or Not to Drape

How Chinese Massage Might Help With Muscle and Joint Pain

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You may have to completely undress under the sheets to receive a Swedish massage, but you should only undress to your comfort level. However, having more skin exposed allows the practitioner to work on you more effectively. Shiatsu massage can be received with your clothes on. The clothing layer should be light and comfortable enough to keep you warm while providing enough feedback for the practitioner so that he or she can feel your body's landmarks, such as your shoulder blade or the top of your pelvis.