Just about everyone going through massage school learns about the various categories of massage strokes on the first day of class. Effleurage – the gliding stroke; petrissage – the kneading stroke; and tapotement – the percussion stroke.
And, while most students enjoy watching the instructor demonstrate tapotement, they often become apprehensive trying to do it themselves. They are afraid of not getting the rhythm right, or of hurting the client, or of over-stimulating a client after a relaxing hour of slow gliding strokes. The key to proper tapotement is in “letting go” – getting out of your head about what you are doing and just letting your hands do the work.
What Is Tapotement?
The word tapotement originates in the French verb “tapoter,” meaning to tap or pat. It is often interchanged with the word percussion, which seems to be more understood by the English speaking community.
What all the tapotement movements generally have in common is a rapid, rhythmic movement by the hands, originating from a relaxed wrist, which strikes the body briskly and alternately, usually at a rate between 4 to 10 strikes per second. The differences comes from what part of the massage therapist’s hand is used, as well as the depth of pressure applied.
At the end of a relaxing massage session, the stimulation provided by tapotement brings the client back to a more grounded consciousness and, if done well, does not agitate the body to a point of stress or nervousness.
Categories of Tapotement
- Hacking – This is perhaps the most familiar form of tapotement, often seen in films, especially in sports warm-up scenes. The therapist’s hands are held outstretched with palms facing each other. Wrists are kept loose. Both hands alternately strike the client’s body, with wrists having a slight rotation as hands rise and fall in rapid succession. Only the ulnar border of hand, and to some extent the tips of the three medial fingers, touch the body. The fingers and hands should remain relaxed at all times.
- Pounding/Pummeling – The main difference between hacking and pounding or pummeling is that the therapist’s hands are held in a soft fist with the little finger portion of the hand making contact with the clients body.
- Cupping – In cupping, the therapist forms the palmar aspect of his or her hand into a cup-like shape, by slightly flexing the fingers. These “cups” are then struck against the client’s body. The palm of the hand does not touch the body. Only the outer edges that form the rim of the cup come in contact with the client. There is often a distinctive “clop, clop” sound that results when performed correctly.
- Tapping – Tapping is the lightest and most gentle of all the percussive movements and is often performed at a slower rate than the others. The therapist’s hands are loose and relaxed. Only the tips of the fingers are used to gently tap the area. This movement can be used on the more delicate areas of the body such as the head and face.
- Plucking – In plucking, the client’s skin is gently picked up by the thumb and fingers of each hand in a kind of light pinching or pecking motion. The tissue is picked up and released in rapid, alternating movement, using both hands.
Four Benefits of Tapotement
- Tapotement has a hyperemic effect. That is, it increases local blood circulation, which, in turn, helps to warm and soften the underlying tissue. The skin will feel warm to the touch and appear flushed. It is often used to help warm-up an athlete prior to an event.
- With this technique, nerve endings are stimulated, which produce tiny muscular contractions, resulting in an overall increase in muscle tone. This is thought to happen because of the stroke pressure being registered by the muscle’s mechanoreceptors in the fascia and Golgi tendon organ. A reflex action follows, resulting in the contraction of both voluntary and involuntary muscles.
- Cupping, specifically, can be used over the upper and middle back to loosen mucous in the lungs, and has been helpful with those suffering from cystic fibrosis. Any client appearing to have respiratory problems should be cleared first by his or her physician to make sure massage is appropriate for his or her condition.
- When used in combination with other massage techniques, tapotement helps to reduce fatty deposits and tone flabby muscle areas.
Contraindications and Precautions
Tapotement should only be used on the fleshy portions of the body – never on bony areas. For example, it maybe used on the posterior portions of the leg, such as on the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, but never along the anterior tibia.
Additionally, it should not be used on:
- the spine, the head, the neck or back of the knee
- inflamed, strained or abnormally contracted tissue
- any area of hypersensitivity
- varicose veins
- directly over kidneys
- paralyzed, flaccid or otherwise compromised muscle tissue
- suspected or diagnosed fractures
The massage therapist’s movement during tapotement comes from relaxed hands and wrists, never from the shoulder or elbow. If your body mechanics are not correct you will be quickly exhausted. Tapotement is a stroke that should be used only for short periods of time, as prolonged use will result in muscle fatigue and become counterproductive.
Done correctly tapotement should have a stimulating effect, though some clients actually find it relaxing.
The best tapotement comes when you are not thinking about it. Let it just flow. Trying to concentrate on getting it correct will result in an uneven rhythm and a massage session that feels a bit disjointed to the client. If you have been reluctant to include tapotement in your sessions, try practicing with another massage therapist, or recruit a friend or relative to be a test subject. Perfecting your tapotement can add not only increased health benefits to your client, but also provides a stimulating closing to your routine that enables them to return to their day relaxed and refreshed.
Cassar, Mario-Paul. Handbook of Clinical Massage. 2nd. London: Churchill Livingston, 2004.
“Ivy Rose Holistic: Therapies: Massage.” Tapotement. 2008. Ivy Rose Holistic. 30 Sep 2008 http://www.ivy-rose.co.uk.
Mally, Dr. James. Swedish Massage with Dr. James Mally. Roseville, California: Abundant Health Resources, Inc., 2000.