10 Big Differences Between Thai Massage and Swedish Massage

Cobra Stretch in Thai Massage

One of my most frequently asked questions is: “what is the difference between Thai Massage and Swedish Massage?” It’s a lot to unpack because they are almost opposites on the modality spectrum! Swedish Massage is the most commonly practiced massage modality in the Western world – particularly in the United States, so here we can also refer to it as “traditional western massage”, or “traditional massage”. Massage Therapists in the United States usually receive a base education in Swedish Massage, and then are able to further niche down based on a preferred modality. I happened to choose Thai Massage as my specialty, because I found it to be superior in terms of giving and receiving. The main goal of massage therapy is to lengthen tight, or contracted, muscles, and I believe Thai Massage does this the best.

Here are 10 differences between Thai Massage and Swedish Massage:

1- Origins

Thai Massage has been said to have been developed by monks in India, who brought the techniques to Thailand around 2,500 years ago. It has been believed to have been developed by the personal physician of Buddha himself, Shivago Komarpaj. Much of this is folk-lore and cannot be proven, and Thai Massage seems to have its roots in the indigenous population of Thailand. It has been passed down through generations from oral tradition, so there is very little known about the true origin of Thai Massage. Swedish Massage on the other hand, was developed in the Western world, being first introduced in the 19th century by Swedish medical-gymnastic practitioner, Pehr Henrik Ling, who incorporated ancient techniques used by the Greeks and Romans. This technique was brought to the United States in 1850 by two brothers, Dr. Charles and George Taylor; it has since become the most widely practiced modality in the United States.

2- Clothing and draping protocols

Thai Massage is given while the recipient remains fully clothed in loose, comfortable clothing or athletic wear. This is a movement and stretch-based therapy, so wearing comfortable clothing allows for the greatest comfort and range of motion for the recipient. For the sake of modesty, the recipient remains fully clothed as the practitioner brings the client through a series of poses. This differs from Swedish Massage, wherein the recipient undresses to his/her level of comfort (usually fully undressed or leaving lower undergarments on), and lays underneath a sheet and blanket. During Swedish Massage, the practitioner modestly undrapes the client’s limbs while following proper draping protocol. Both practices allow for the client’s private areas to be fully covered, and there will always be proper privacy and safety practices in place for both the recipient and the practitioner. However, Thai Massage offers the highest level of safety and privacy between the two and there is no cause for accidents or draping mishaps.

Thai Massage
Thai Massage

3- Use of cream or oil

Because Thai Massage offers movement and stretch-based therapy with the client fully clothed, there is no cream or oil used by the practitioner. This is due in part because the client is fully clothed, but also because the practitioner needs to be able to grip the limbs during stretches. Oil or cream offers too much slip, and thus would be ineffective for the technique! The benefit of this is Thai Massage requires no showering afterward and will not cause any allergic skin reactions. Swedish Massage is performed by the practitioner’s hands gliding over the areas worked; therefore, to protect both parties’ skin from friction burns, oil or cream is necessary in this technique. Most massage creams and oils are hypoallergenic, but someone with extreme allergies or sensitivities may sometimes require a patch test.

4- Location performed

To allow for the greatest range of motion, and thus the greatest pain relief, Thai Massage is performed on a mat on the floor. Mat-based floor work allows the practitioner to use his/her full body for leverage and better body mechanics to move the recipient around. The practitioner is able to treat the recipient’s body in a full range of motion, instead of only posterior and anterior ranges. I personally use two 4’x8’ gymnastics mats covered with blankets and a king size sheet, but I have seen various sizes for traditional Thai Massage mats. I find the 8’x8’ to be the best size to accommodate clients who are over 6’ tall, and allows me to protect my knees as well. Swedish Massage is performed on a massage table, which is roughly 28”-33” wide by up to 6’ long. The client then lays passively on the table either supine or prone, and the practitioner glides and kneads the muscle tissue. This can incorporate some passive range of motion, but in traditional Swedish massage, it is generally disregarded.

Swedish Massage
Swedish Massage using oils on a massage table

5- Yoga-like stretches

A Thai Massage practitioner passively moves the recipient in a series of yoga-like stretches. It is performed much like a dance, in which the practitioner moves the client’s body in and out of stretches rhythmically. When the client is brought to a full range in a yoga-like pose, the practitioner may apply pressure with his/her hands, forearms, knees, or feet to allow for tension release. Thai Massage is often referred to as “lazy yoga” or “passive yoga”. Swedish Massage traditionally incorporates little to no stretching or range-of-motion exercises, although Massage Therapists trained in other modalities are able to incorporate these in a session. Swedish Massage instead applies gliding, kneading, friction, and tapping techniques for tension release.

Cobra Stretch in Thai Massage
Cobra Stretch in Thai Massage

6- Movement therapy

One of the biggest differences between Thai Massage and Swedish Massage is the amount of movement involved. The practitioner will move a client’s limbs by stretching, rocking, rotating, and bringing them through a gentle range of motion, which lubricates and warms the joints, allowing immobile joints to open up and move more freely. Many people who have limited range of motion are able to achieve more range during and after a Thai Massage session, resulting in decompression of the joints, easier movement, and less pain. Traditionally, there is very little joint mobility during a Swedish Massage; it is performed by the client laying still on a table, and the practitioner glides or kneads the muscle tissue. Any increased range of motion from Swedish Massage happens by loosening the tight and stiff muscles surrounding the joint.

7- Myofascial release

There are various modalities that are marketed specifically as “myofascial release” techniques. Because it is a type of connective tissue, fascia takes time, heat, and movement to loosen up. Most myofascial release techniques primarily use stretch and compression to achieve this. Looking at Thai Massage – that is the entire basis of the modality! Though Thai Massage is not generally marketed as “myofascial release”, the basis of the modality is similar. Swedish Massage does not traditionally use sustained pressure on these tight areas, and stretch is not typically offered; instead, it offers myofascial release by warming up the soft tissues with gliding and friction techniques. Skilled practitioners of Swedish Massage are able to incorporate other myofascial release techniques, and sometimes add hot stones or a heating pad to further assist in this.

8- Acupressure

Thai Massage practitioners use acupressure, or compression, to relieve tight and stiff muscles. This is achieved by the practitioner’s fingers, palms, feet, knees, or an acupressure tool. A Thai Massage practitioner is able to apply a comfortable amount of pressure to work deep into the muscle tissue. Swedish Massage uses gliding techniques to apply pressure to and across the muscles, whereas acupressure in Thai Massage applies sustained pressure to the area of discomfort.

acupressure on feet using Thai reflexology stick
Acupressure on feet using a Thai Reflexology Stick

9- Energy work

Thai Massage balances the body’s energy system based on the idea of Sen lines. These invisible energy lines are critical to the basis of Thai Massage, as stagnant life force energy (Lom, Prana, Ki, Chi) is thought to be the root of disease in Eastern Medicine. A practitioner of Thai Massage removes blockages in these lines by applying pressure with his/her thumbs, fingers, or an acupressure tool; once these blockades are removed the Prana is able to flow freely once again, allowing the body to heal itself and maintain wellness. Because Swedish Massage is based in Western medicine, it traditionally disregards the energy body and is rooted in scientific theory and fact. Swedish Massage tends to be more focused on relaxing the client and the client’s body by balancing the autonomic nervous system – the goal is to reduce the over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, and promote the parasympathetic nervous system. Swedish Massage is an effective tool in this case for reducing stress and anxiety.

diagram of sen lines
Diagram of Sen lines

10- Returning muscles to original length

The goal of a Massage Therapist is not to mold or change the muscles, but rather, to lengthen contracted muscle tissues to their original length. In the reference image below, the anatomical position illustrates the muscles in this original length – this is the opposite of their most tight or contracted state. Muscles work in groups, so while at rest certain groups may exist in a contracted state while others may not, which results in decreased movement, atrophy, and ultimately pain. With these areas of chronic tension, muscles are no longer able to stretch to their full capacity. While I was in college, I wondered how I could help bring muscles back to their original length by using Swedish Massage techniques. I pondered this with my studies until a Thai Massage practitioner came and shared the modality with the class. This forever changed my way of thinking around massage therapy, as I was able to see and feel first-hand how Thai Massage is able to restore a person’s tight muscles to their original length by stretching and moving them.

anterior and posterior views of human anatomical position
Anterior and Posterior anatomical position

I hope this article was enlightening for you and gives you a better sense of the differences between Thai Massage and traditional Swedish Massage. If you have any questions, please comment below or send me an email at beth@fallsunwind.com. If Thai Massage sounds like the right treatment for you, I invite you to book an appointment online here.

Comments

  1. Mia Evans says:

    Thanks for helping me understand that we will be fully clothed when we get a Thai massage which is why there is no need for creams or oils. I will try that out because it would be a great option for someone like me who is not that confident about her skin. I just need to have my back and shoulders massaged after it felt so stiff when I woke up this morning.

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