Compression, friction and vibration are three classifications of massage strokes, or techniques that, when used, add a lot of variety as well as increased health benefits to the recipient. Depending on how they are defined, these techniques are considered by some to be sub-categories of effleurage, petrissage or tapotement.
All massage strokes offer some degree of compression, whether one is working with traditional Swedish massage or the various forms of Eastern bodywork, such as Shiatsu or Thai massage. Pressure can range from extremely light, such as manual lymphatic drainage massage, to very deep, as in deep tissue massage and certain sports massage procedures.
In massage schools, if taught as a separate technique, compression is often taught simply as a stationary laying on of hands or fingers with a slight pushing down on to the tissue, a lifting up of the hands and then moving over and repeating. This might be used on the clients back at the opening or closing of a massage session in conjunction with a slight rocking movement, which is meant to encourage the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
In addition to relaxation, effective use of compression has many physiological benefits, including an increase in circulation, reduction of edema and releasing of adhesions. Light compression can be used on almost anybody under any circumstances. It can be used during traditional on-the-table massage, chair massage or massage on floor mats, and can be used over clothing. Lubricant is not needed for most compression techniques, as it is not typically a gliding stroke.
Friction is another technique in massage therapy that rarely requires the use of oils or crèmes to be effective. Because it is a focused stroke used in a small, localized area, usually no bigger than a 50-cent piece, the hands or fingers of the therapist need to maintain a certain amount of stability and consistent pressure to achieve maximum results.
There are two broad classifications of this technique, circular and transverse. In circular friction the finger tips of the first two fingers and/or sometimes the thumb are used to create small circular movements. The fingers do not glide over the skin but, rather, press firmly on the skin, which then moves over the underlying tissue. Friction is a very effective way to break up adhesions, especially in areas such as the intercostal muscles, as well as the infraspinatus portion of the scapula.
In transverse friction, the tips and pads of the fingers are used and, if the pressure desired is to be deep, one hand may be placed over the other as reinforcement. As in circular friction, the fingers do not glide over the skin, but press down on it and move across underlying tissue. Instead of circular movements, the direction of transverse friction moves either at a 90-degree angle or, in some cases, slightly oblique to the muscle fibers.
Friction strokes should not be used on pregnant women. During pregnancy the hormone relaxin is produced, which results in a softening of ligaments, tendons and fascia. This can easily result in the dislocation of joints if certain friction techniques are used. Friction is also contraindicated over varicosities, active inflammation, skin infections or recently strained muscles. While friction techniques are a great way to increase circulation locally, it can also act as an irritant and aggravate underlying conditions and must be used with care.
Vibration is probably the least used of massage techniques. Students are somewhat fearful of doing it, and performing it for a final exam is often the last time it is used. Done correctly, though, it is one of the most effective techniques for soothing irritated muscles. Vibration uses the tips of the fingers moving in a very rapid back and forth trembling movement on the skin with a light pressure. The vibration originates in the forearm muscles of the therapist and moves down through the hands, creating a motion similar to shivering. It is used only for very short periods of times, anywhere from five to 20 seconds in a given spot, as it is extremely tiring for the therapist.
Using vibration helps stimulate circulation and promotes healthy glandular activity, improves lymphatic flow and muscle tone and, if used along with friction techniques, loosens scar tissue.
As with any massage technique, certain precautions or contraindications should be taken into consideration either prior to or during the session. If the technique applied produces pain, especially along nerves, the massage should be stopped as it could aggravate an existing pathology. Areas that are inflamed or have open wounds should be avoided, as should recent injury sites. Care should also be taken when working on a woman who is pregnant. If in doubt as to whether a certain technique can be used, check with the client’s physician or a more experienced massage therapist.
Each person offers a different landscape of skin, muscle and bone. Opening your massage routine to different techniques helps to make your sessions more effective and shows clients you are giving them a therapeutic treatment tailored to their body. Varying your strokes to accommodate each client’s individuality is also a way of becoming more familiar with the art and science of the profession. It helps to increase your palpation skills and knowledge of anatomy as well. This, in turn, helps you to become a more proficient massage therapist.