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Significance of Massage Therapy in Ancient Times

By Jacqueline / March 9th, 2018

Massage therapy is a practice that can be traced back thousands of years as a form of pain relief, and health maintenance, all around the world. However, its early use stemmed from China, Japan, India, Greece, and Rome. Massage therapy may be new to some, but soft tissue manipulation techniques such as rubbing and applying pressure is nothing new. Let’s dive into how massage, and the healing power of touch, were used in ancient times to aid in the  improvement of physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as its growth and popularization over the years.

Ancient China
The earliest form of massage therapy can be dated back to 3000 BCE in the book Cong Fou of Tao-Tse. This ancient book discussed a holistic approach to health via the use of medicinal plants, exercises, and amno, to treat diseases and maintain health, according to massage educator Mark F. Beck. Amno, later called amma in Japan, are pressure points on the body where stimulation such as rubbing, stroking, pressure, stretching, and other forms of stimulation, were most effective and this was discovered from years of experience. Acupressure, derived from acupuncture, is influenced by amno and is the application of finger pressure, and touch, on specific points on the body to relieve tension and enhance chi or energy in the body.

The phrase “finger pressure” and other forms of manipulation were mentioned in a book dated back around 2600 BC titled, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, also known as the Nei Ching or Neijing, written by famous Chinese emperor Huangdi, and translated and published in 1949 by Dr. Ilza Veith. In the book, techniques such as massage treatments of the skin and muscles, breathing exercises, and exercises of the hands and feet, were used to treat paralysis, chills, and fever.

Ancient Japan
Amma, the Japanese term for Chinese amno, arrived in Japan around the sixth century. The points of stimulation on the body were the same as in China, but called tsubo. “Tsubo are pressed to affect the circulation of fluids and Ki (also spelled Chi, the life force energy) and to stimulate nerves,” (Beck). Interestingly, shiatsu massage were practiced by blind persons in Japan as a source of income and was supported by the government.

In recent years, shiatsu has been popular in the US; however, this technique can be dated back to the sixteenth century in Japan. Shiatsu is a massage technique in which points of stimulation or pressure points are pressed to affect the circulation of fluids and Ki or Chi, the life force energy.

Benefits of Shiatsu Massage

•Shiatsu helps relieve constipation when applied to the abdominal area. It also benefits the digestive system by allowing food to digest more easily and aides in waste elimination.

•Helps alleviate tension, pain, and spasms out of muscles, and as a result, eliminates muscle aches by rubbing and pulling at the skin and muscles, and by pressing on acupressure points that release tension. Muscle nutrition is also enhanced by improved circulation.

•Shiatsu helps to aid migraines by relaxing the body and increasing blood flow, and circulation, throughout the body.

•Shiatsu is also a non-invasive therapy that helps reduce stress, tension, anxiety, and depression, by leaving you relaxed and calm.

•Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammation of the body’s tissue which causes inflamed joints and the eroding of the white tissue covering the end of bones where joints are formed, also known as articular cartilage. Pressure from the massage can be applied to hands, feet, or any area, that is affected by arthritis.

•Improves skin health by helping stimulate circulation in capillaries of the skin’s soft tissues. Shiatsu massage also stimulates the secretion of the sebaceous glands and keeps skin moist and smooth. This helps give skin elasticity and prevents wrinkling. The improved blood circulation also helps improve the look and glow of the skin.

•Shiatsu massages have been used for thousands of years to aid women during monthly cycles and alleviate menstrual cramps. It has also been known to help women in labor and babies turn in the womb. It can induce labor in women who are overdue and help ease morning sickness, and swelling, that is often caused by pregnancy.

•Increases stamina by storing energy reserves and assists in fat metabolism and removal.

•Helps those who suffer from fatigue and weakness by restoring and maintaining the body’s energy.

Ancient India
In about 200 BCE, a book titled, The Laws of Manu (The Laws of Man) was composed by Brahim priests as duties, or laws, of everyday life and how it should be lived. These priests were responsible for teaching and maintaining sacred knowledge. These duties included diet, bathing, exercise, and tschanpua, a hindu technique of massage in the bath. Tschanpua included massage techniques such kneading the extremities, tapotement, and frictioning, as well as cracking the joints of the fingers, toes, and neck. The Laws of Manu is still significant in the Hindu culture today among other hindu law codes.

Ancient Greece and Rome
For the ancient Greeks, a gymnasium was a cultural center where exercise, baths and massage were combined to treat disease and promote health. The center also contained areas where discussions about philosophy and politics could occur.  As a regular fitness ritual, oils would be rubbed on the body before and after exercises to prepare the people for exercise and recovery afterwards. The Hippocratic Oath was a code of ethics for physicians to best maintain the health of their patients, honor their patients’ secrets, and prescribe no harmful treatment or drug” (Beck). It was speculated to have originated around 400 BCE, and attributed to Hippocrates who later became known as the “Father of medicine.” The use of soft tissue manipulation, and the term, “anatripsis” which means the art of rubbing a body part upward, not downward, were mentioned in these code of ethics as a way to enhance and build muscle health.

The Romans were influenced by the Greeks in terms of the practice of manipulation and bathing for optimal health. Rubbing, plus manual manipulation techniques, were used to treat weak and diseased patients and helped remove stiffness, and soreness, from muscles. One of the most significant Roman physicians was Aulus Cornelius Celsus, who lived during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (about 42 BCE- CR 37). His book, De Medicina, discussed a variety of health topics including medicine, disease prevention and the use of exercise, bathing, and manipulations. He enlightened the people on rubbing the head to relieve headaches and rubbing the limbs to strengthen muscles and combat paralysis. “Rubbing and friction also were used to improve sluggish circulation, treat internal disorders, and reduce edema,” (Beck). When massaging, the Romans used upward strokes on the limbs, as mentioned in the teachings of Hippocrates, as this was noticed to be more effective than rubbing downwards even though blood circulation was not completely understood back then.

“Even Julius Gaius Caesar, Roman general and Emperor of Rome (100-400 BCE), is said to have demanded his daily baths and rubbing for the relief of neuralgia and prevention of epileptic attacks, “ Mark F. Beck.

Greco-Roman Influence Around the World
Despite the fall of the Roman Empire in the Middle ages, Greco-Roman culture still had influence in areas such as North Africa, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia. The Canon of Medicine, considered the most important single book in medical history was written by Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna. A devoted follower of Claudius Galen, a Greek who became a physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and credited for his discovery that arteries and veins contain blood, as well emphasizing the importance of exercise, proper hygiene, and manipulation for a healthy body and mind, Avicenna made many references to Galen’s writings in the use of rubbing, exercise, and bathing for disease prevention and health maintenance. 

Techniques of medical rubbing and friction, as well as healing with the hands, continued to grow over the years and spread throughout Europe including France, Germany, England, Sweden and Italy. Massage in ancient times were called rubbing, and thanks to Dr. Johann Mezger (1839-1909) of Amsterdam, Netherlands, the term “massage” was established as a way of treating a variety of ailments. The term, massage, was introduced in the United States in 1874 when massage practitioner and historian Dr. Douglas O. Graham from Boston, and Benjamin Lee and Charles Mills from Philadelphia, used Mezger’s terminology in their medical journal articles. The immense benefits of massage were also made known by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852- 1943) who wrote many articles on massage, and hydrotherapy, and operated a natural healing institution in Michigan called the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Even though massage therapy is well-known, and practiced almost all over the world, there are still many who are oblivious to its health benefits. Since becoming a massage practitioner, I’ve had many people tell me they’ve never had a massage before, as well as regular adult clients who had their first massage from me. Massage has so many benefits and it is amazing to see its growing demand especially in hospital settings.



Beck, Mark. Theory & Practice of Therapeutic Massage. Cengage Learning, 2017.

Calvert, Robert Noah. “The History of Massage.” Google Books, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2002, books.google.com/books?id=Z-rVa50Vx94C&dq=how%2Bamno%2Bpoints%2Bmassage%2Bwas%2Bdiscovered%2Bin%2Bchina&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

MassageBook. “Benefits of Shiatsu Massage.” Massage Therapy, www.massagebook.com/massage-therapy/benefits/benefits-of-shiatsu-massage/.

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