United Massage Therapists
Back to Home Page
Massage Therapy Terms

Some Massage Therapy Terms Compiled By Massage Therapist Margie

It would be a great oversight on my part to not acknowledge the two primary sources that most of the following information was extrapolated from. If you are someone who has just entered the massage therapy field or just simply want a better understanding of the art and science that massage therapy is, consider reading the following two books. I would like to personally thank the authors of each of these books and their respective publishers.

  1. Milady’s Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage (look for the most recent edition)
    Written by Mark F. Beck
  2. Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage (look for the most recent edition)
    Written by Sandy Fritz
Active Assisted Movement- Movement of a joint in which both the client and the therapist produce the motion. Active Range Of Motion- Movement of the joint by a client without any type of assistance from the massage practitioner.

Active Resistive Movement- Movement of a joint by the client against resistance provided by the therapist.

Acupressure- Methods used to tone or sedate acupuncture points without the use of needles.

Acupuncture Point- Oriental term for a specific point that correlates with a neurological motor point.

Acute Pain- A symptom of a disease condition or a temporary aspect of medical treatment. Acute pain acts as a warning signal because it can activate the sympathetic nervous system. It usually is temporary, of sudden onset, and localized. The client frequently can describe the pain, which often subsides without treatment.

Adhesion- The uniting of two surfaces. Layers of connective tissue may adhere to each other limiting the involved muscles and increasing the possibility of injury.

Applied Kinesiology- Methods of evaluation and bodywork that use a specialized type of muscle testing and various forms of massage and bodywork for corrective procedures.

Approximation- The technique of pushing muscle fibers together in the belly of the muscle.

Assessment- The collection and interpretation of information provided by the client, the massage therapist, and referring medical professionals.
Autonomic Nervous System- The body system that regulates involuntary body function using the sympathetic "fight/flight/fear response" and the restorative parasympathetic "relaxation response." The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to maintain homeostasis through a feedback loop system.

Body Mechanics- Use of the body in an efficient and biomechanically correct way.

Body/Mind- The interaction between thought and physiology that is connected to the limbic system, hypothalamic influence on the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system.

Bodywork- A term that encompasses all the various forms of massage, movement, and other touch therapies.

Boundary- Personal space that exists within an arm's length perimeter. Personal emotional space is designated by morals, values, and experience.

Care or Treatment Plan- The plan used to achieve therapeutic goals. It outlines the agreed objectives; the frequency, duration, and number of visits; progress measurements; the date of reassessment; and massage methods to be used.

Chemical Effects- The effects of massage produced by the release of chemical substances in the body. These substances may be released locally from the tissue, or they may be hormones released into the general circulation.

Chronic- A term that describes the type of disease that develops slowly and lasts for a long time, sometimes for life.

Chronic Pain- Pain that persists or recurs for indefinite periods, usually for longer than 6 months. It frequently has an insidious onset, and the character and quality of the pain change over time. It frequently involves deep somatic and visceral structures. Chronic pain usually is diffuse and poorly localized.

Circulatory- Systems that depend on the pumping action of the skeletal muscle such as the arterial, venous, respiratory, etc.

Client Information Form- A document used to obtain information from the client about health, preexisting conditions, and expectations for the massage.

Chronic Spasm- Alternating involuntary contraction and relaxation of a muscle.

Comfort Barrier- The first point of resistance short of the client's perceiving any discomfort at the physiologic or pathologic barrier.

Compensation- The process of counterbalancing a defect in body structure or function.

Compression- Pressure into the body to spread tissue against underlying structures. Also referred to as the exertion of inappropriate pressure on nerves by hard tissue such as bone.

Concentric Isotonic Contraction- Application of a counter force by the massage therapist while allowing the client to move, which brings the origin and insertion of the target muscle together against the pressure.

Confidentially- Respect for the privacy of information obtained during therapeutic sessions and all other time spent with clients.

Connective Tissue- The most abundant tissue type in the body; it provides support, structure, space, stabilization, and scar formation.

Contraindication- Any condition that renders a particular treatment improper or undesirable.

Counter Pressure- Force applied to an area that is designated to match exactly ( isometric contraction ) or partly ( isotonic contraction ) the effort or force produced by the muscles of that area.

Counter Transference- The personalization of the professional relationship by the therapist in which the practitioner is unable to separate the therapeutic relationship from personal feelings and expectations for the client.

Cream- A type of lubricate that is in a semisolid or solid state.

Cross-Directional Stretching- Tissue stretching that pulls and twists connective tissue against its fiber direction.

Deep Transverse Friction- A specific rehabilitation technique that creates therapeutic inflammation by creating a specific, controlled reinjury of tissues by applying concentrated therapeutic movement that moves the tissue against its grain over only a very small area.

Depth Of Pressure- Compressive stress that can be light, moderate, deep or varied.

Direction Of Ease- The position the body assumes with postural changes and muscle shortening or weakening, depending on how it has balanced against gravity.

Drag- The amount of pull ( stretch ) on the tissue ( tensile strength ).

Drape- Fabric used to cover the client and keep the individual warm while the massage is given.

Draping- The procedure of covering and uncovering areas of the body and turning the client during the massage.

Dysfunction- An in-between state in which one is not healthy but also not sick. The state that a muscle, etc. is in when it is not functioning properly.

Eccentric Isotonic Contraction- Application of a counterforce while the client moves the jointed area, which allows the origin and insertion to separate. The muscle separates against the pressure.

Edema- An accumulation of excessive water in cells, tissues, or various membranes.

Effleurage (Gliding Stroke)- Horizontal strokes applied with the fingers, hand, or forearm that usually follow the fiber direction of the underlying muscle or fascial planes.

Electrical- Chemical Functions- Physiologic functions of the body that rely on or produce body energy; often called chi, prana, and meridian energy.

End-Feel- The perception of the joint at the limit of its range of motion. The end-feel is either soft or hard.

Entrainment- The coordination of movements or their synchronization to a rhythm.

Entrapment- Pathological pressure placed on a nerve or vessel by soft tissue.

Essential Touch- Vital, fundamental, and primary touch that is crucial to well-being.

Facilitation- The state of a nerve in which it is stimulated but not to the point of threshold, the point at which it transmits a nerve signal.

Fascial Sheath- A flat sheet of connective tissue used for separation, stability, and muscular attachment points.

Feedback- A noninvasive, continual exchange of information between the client and the professional.

Friction- Specific circular or transverse movements that do not glide on the skin and that are focused on the underlying tissue.

Gait- Walking pattern.

Golgi Tendon- Receptors in the tendon that sense tension.

Growth Hormone- A hormone that promotes cell division; in adults it is implicated in the repair and regeneration of tissue.

Healing- The restoration of well-being.

Health- Optimal functioning with freedom from disease or abnormal processes.

Heavy Pressure- Compressive force that extends to the bone under the tissue.

Hemorrhage- An escape of blood through ruptured or unruptured vessels.

Histamine- A chemical produced by the body that dilates the blood vessels.

Homeostastis- Dynamic equilibrium of the internal environment, various functions, and chemical compositions of the body through processes of feedback and regulation.

Hormone- A messenger chemical in the bloodstream.

Hyper- Excessive or above normal.

Hyperkinesia- Excessive muscular activity.

Hypersensitivity- An exaggerated response to a stimulus or foreign property.

Hyperstimulation Analgesia- Diminishing the perception of a sensation by stimulating large-diameter nerve fibers. Some methods used are application of ice or heat, counter irritation, acupressure, acupuncture, rocking, music, and repetitive massage strokes.

Hypertonic- The existence of a greater level of tension.

Hypo- Used in prefix form; meaning below normal or deficient.

Hypotonic- A tissue that possesses a lesser degree of tension.

Hypoxia- Below normal levels of oxygen.

Impingement Syndrome- Conditions that involve pathological pressure on nerves and vessels.

Indication- A therapeutic application that promotes health or assists in the healing process. When there is justification to work an existing condition with a positive outcome.

Inflammatory Response- A normal mechanism, characterized by pain, heat, redness, and swelling, that usually speeds recovery from an infection or injury.

Insertion- The muscle attachment point that is closest to the moving joint.

Intuition- Knowing something by using subconscious information.

Ischemia- Local anemia of a tissue due to obstruction of the blood supply.

Isometric Contraction- A contraction in which the effort of the muscle or group of muscles is exactly matched by a counter pressure, so that no movement occurs, only effort.

Isotonic Contraction- A contraction in which the effort of the target muscle or group of muscles is partly matched by counter pressure, allowing a degree of resisted movement.

Joint- End-Feel- The sensation felt when a normal joint is taken to its physiological limit.

Joint Kinesthetic Receptors- Receptors in the capsules of joints that respond to pressure and to acceleration and deceleration of joint movement.

Joint Movement- The movement of the joint through its normal range of motion.

Lengthening- The process in which the muscle assumes a normal resting length by means of the neuromuscular mechanism.

Lesion- A wound or injury creating a pathogenic change in tissues.

Lubricant- A substance that reduces friction on the skin during massage movements.

Manipulation- Skillful use of the hands in a therapeutic manner. Massage manipulations focus on the soft tissues of the body and are not to be confused with joint manipulation using a high-velocity thrust.

Massage Chair- A specifically designed chair that allows the client to sit comfortably during the massage.

Massage Routine- The step-by-step protocol and sequence used to give a massage.

Massage Table- A specifically designed table that allows massage to be done with the client lying down.

Matrix- The intercellular substance of a tissue.

Mechanical Methods- Techniques that directly affect the soft tissue by normalizing the connective tissue or moving body fluids and intestinal contents.

Moderate Pressure- Compressive pressure that extends to the muscle layer but does not press the tissue against the underlying bone.

Motor Point- The point where a motor nerve enters the muscle it innervates and causes a muscle to twitch if stimulated.

Muscle Spindles- Structures located primarily in the belly of the muscle that respond to both sudden and prolonged stretches.

Musculotendinous Junction- The point where muscle fibers end and the connective tissue continues to form the tendon; a major site of injury.

Myofibril- A very small longitudinal fiber found in skeletal or cardiac muscle fiber.

Nerve Impingement- Pressure against a nerve by skin, fascia, muscles, ligaments, or joints.

Neuromuscular- The interaction between nervous system control of the muscles and the response of the muscles to the nerve signals.

Neuromuscular Mechanism- The interplay and reflex connection between sensory and motor neurons and muscle function.

Neurotransmitter- A messenger chemical in the synapse of the nerve.

Norepinephrine- A neurochemical that functions in a manner similar to epinephrine but that is more concentrated in the brain.

Oil- A type of liquid lubricant.

Opportunistic Invasion- Potentially pathogenic organisms are found on the skin and mucous membranes of nearly everyone that do not cause disease until they have the opportunity, such as in a depressed immunity.

Origin- The attachment point of a muscle at the fixed point during movement.

Osteokinematic Movements- The movements of flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation; also known as physiological movements.

Palpation- Assessment through touch.

Parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System- The restorative part of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic response often is called the relaxation response.

Passive Joint Movement- Movement of a joint by the massage practitioner without the assistance of the client.

Passive Range Of Motion- Movement of a joint in which the therapist, not the client, effects the motion.

Pathology- The study of disease.

Petrissage- Kneading; rhythmic rolling, lifting, squeezing, and wringing of soft tissue.

Phasic Muscles- The muscles that move the body.

Physical Assessment- Evaluation of body balance, efficient function, basic symmetry, range of motion, and ability to function.

Physiologic Barriers- The result of the limits in range of motion imposed by protective nerve and sensory function to support optimal performance.

Positional Release- A method of moving the body into the direction of ease ( the way the body wants to move out of the position that causes pain ); the proprioception is taken into a state of safety and may stop signaling for protective spasm.

Postisometric Relaxation- The state that occurs after isometric contraction of a muscle; it results from the activity of minute neural reporting stations called the golgi tendon bodies.

Postural Muscles- Muscles that support the body against gravity.

Prime Movers- The muscles responsible for movement.

Professional Touch- Skilled touch delivered to achieve a specific outcome; the recipient in some way reimburses the professional for services rendered.

Prone- Lying face down.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)- Specific application of muscle energy techniques that uses strong contraction combined with stretching and muscular pattern retraining.

Proprioreceptors- Sensory receptors that detect joint and muscle activity.

Pulsed Muscle Energy- Procedures that involve engaging the barrier and using minute, resisted contractions ( usually 20 in 10 seconds ), which introduces mechanical pumping.

Range Of Motion- Movement of joints.

Rapport- The development of a relationship based on mutual trust and harmony.

Reciprocal Inhibition- The effect that occurs when a muscle contracts, obliging its antagonist to relax in order to allow normal movement to take place.

Recovery Massage- Massage structured primarily for the uninjured athlete who wants to recover from a strenuous workout or competition.

Referred Pain- Pain felt in an area other than the source of the pain.

Reflex- An involuntary response to a stimulus. Reflexes are specific, predictable, adaptive, and purposeful. Reflexive methods work by stimulating the nervous system ( sensory neurons ), and tissue changes occur in response to the body's adaptation to the neural stimulation.

Reflexive Methods- Massage techniques that stimulate the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the chemicals of the body.

Reflexology- A massage system directed primarily toward the feet and hands.

Refractory Period- The period after a muscle contraction during which the muscle is unable to contract again.

Rehabilitation Massage- Massage used for severe injury or as part of intervention after surgery.

Remedial Massage- Massage used for minor to moderate injuries.

Resourceful Compensation- Adjustments made by the body to manage a permanent or chronic dysfunction.

Rocking- Rhythmic movement of the body.

Safe Touch- Secure, respectful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, sympathetic, understanding, supportive, and empathetic touch.

Sanitation- The formulation and application of measures to promote and establish conditions favorable to health, specifically public health.

Scope Of Practice- The knowledge base and practice parameters of a profession.

Sexual Misconduct- Any behavior that is sexually oriented in the professional setting.

Shaking- A technique in which the body area is grasped and shaken in a quick, loose movement; sometimes classified as rhythmic mobilization.

Skin Rolling- A form of petrissage that lifts the skin.

S.O.A.P. Charting- A problem-oriented method of medical record keeping; the acronym soap stands for subjective, objective, assessment, and plan.

Soft Tissue- The skin, fascia, muscles, tendons, joint capsules, and ligaments of the body.

Somatic- Pertaining to the body.

Somatic Pain- Pain that arises from stimulation of receptors in the skin ( superficial somatic pain ) or in skeletal muscles, joints, tendons, and fascia ( deep somatic pain ).

Spasticity- A state of increased muscle tone with exaggerated muscle tendon reflexes.

Spindle Cells- Sensory receptors in the belly of the muscle that detect stretch.

Sporadic- Occurring irregularly or haphazardly.

Stimulation- Excitation that activates the sensory nerves.

Strength Testing- Testing intended to determine whether a muscle is responding with sufficient strength to perform the required body functions. Strength testing determines a muscle's force of contraction.

Stress- Any substantial change in routine or any activity that forces the body to adapt.

Stressors- Any internal perceptions or external stimuli that demand a change in the body.

Stretching- Mechanical tension applied to lengthen the myofascial unit (muscles & fascia ); two types are longitudinal and cross-directional stretching.

Stroke- A technique of therapeutic massage that is applied with a movement on the surface of the body, whether superficial or deep.

Subluxation- An incomplete dislocation creating contact between joint surfaces.

Subtle Energies- Weak electrical fields that surround and run through the body.

Suffering- An overall impairment of a person's quality of life.

Superficial Fascia- The connective tissue layer just under the skin.

Superficial Pressure- Pressure that remains on the skin.

Supine- The position in which the client is lying face up.

Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System- The energy-using part of the autonomic nervous system, the division in which the fight-or-flight response is activated.

Symptoms- The subjective abnormalities felt only by the patient.

Systemic Massage- Massage structured to affect one body system primarily. This approach usually is used for lymphatic and circulation enhancement massage.

Tapotement- Springy blows to the body at a fast rate to create rhythmic compression of the tissue; also called percussion.

Tapping- A type of tapotement that uses the fingertips.

Target Muscle- The muscle or groups of muscles on which the response of the methods is specifically focused.

Techniques- Methods of therapeutic massage that provide sensory stimulation or mechanical change of the soft tissue of the body.

Tendon Organs- Structures found in the tendon and musculotendinous junction that responds to tension at the tendon.

Therapeutic Applications- Healing or curative powers.

Therapeutic Change- Beneficial change produced by a bodywork process that resulted in a modification of physical form or function that can affect a client's physical, mental, and/or spiritual state.

Therapeutic Relationship- The interpersonal structure and professional boundaries between professionals and the clients they serve.

Tonic Vibration Reflex- Reflex that tones a muscle with stimulation through vibration methods at the tendon.

Touch- Contact with no movement.

Touch Technique- The basis of soft tissue forms of bodywork methods.

Traction- Gentle pull on the joint capsule to increase the joint space.

Transference- The personalization of the professional relationship by the client.

Trauma- Physical injury caused by violent or disruptive action, toxic substances, or psychic injury resulting from a severe long-or short-term emotional shock.

Trigger Point- An area of local nerve facilitation; pressure on the trigger point results in hypertonicity of a muscle bundle and referred pain patterns. Muscle fibers in this area have gone through injury and have not completely healed and when touched present moderate to severe pain.

Vibration- Fine or coarse tremulous movement that creates reflexive responses.

Wellness- The efficient balance of body, mind, and spirit, all working in a harmonious way to provide quality of life.


Nearly all of the above information came from these two excellent books which I highly recommend for learning the fundamentals of massage therapy.

Book 1) Beck, Mark F. 1994. Milady’s Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage, 2nd Ed. Albany: Milady Publishing Company.

Book 2) Fritz, Sandy. 2000. Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage, 2nd Ed. St. Louis: Mosby Publishing.

Back to Home Page