A couple enjoying a back massage.

When you picture getting a massage, do you see a pristine white spa, a massage therapist rubbing your back with scented oils, and maybe too much OMM-ing in the music? On the other hand, to your picture getting an intense or even painful session that uses elbows, fists, or rock-hard tennis balls?

Swedish massages and deep tissue massages are some of the most popular styles in the Western world. However, you’ll get very different experiences depending on which one you request. If you’ve had a deeply stressful day at the office, should you ask for a deep tissue massage or try to pamper your cares away, Swedish style? Read on to find out:

Swedish Massage

A woman having a Swedish massage.

Swedish massage is the older of these two styles. The massage therapist seeks to treat soft tissues including muscles, tendons, and joints. Swedish massages may also be used to improve circulation and lymphatic drainage.

How It’s Done

This kind of touch therapy is usually used for whole-body massages. Shorter sessions can be booked that target specific areas of concern. Here, the client undresses to their underwear or down to the buff. They lie on a massage table and are draped with a towel or sheet. The masseuse folds or shifts the sheet to access various body parts.

What does this massage entail? The massage therapist will apply an oil or lotion and manipulate the body with various kinds of strokes, taps, and gentle joint movement. This is done by administering a combination of five classic techniques: effleurage, petrissage, friction, tapotement, and vibration.

Traditional Swedish massages are performed with the hands. However, modern inventions have given us devices like deep tissue massage guns. These work longer and more accurately than even a skilled palm.

Are you wondering why a supposedly Swedish massage uses French names for their principal moves? Read on to learn more.

History of Swedish Massage

A woman enjoying a traditional Swedish massage therapy.

Guess what: Swedish massage isn’t from Sweden and it wasn’t invented by a Swede.

The popular belief is that Swedish massage as we know it was invented by a Swedish fencing instructor, Per Henrik Ling, in the 1830s. He suffered from lifelong pain, which was relieved by a combination of calisthenics, stretching, and massage. Ling created a popular treatment regimen that he called Medical Gymnastics.

Swedish massage was actually invented by Johann Georg Mezger in 1868. He was a Dutch doctor who studied French ‘friction methods’ of massage. Mezger developed them into a clear set of therapeutic techniques. Since they were inspired by French friction massages, he gave the strokes French names.

So how did Ling get the credit for Mezger’s invention? Newspapers and medical journals of that time did not understand the distinction between Ling’s Medical Gymnastics and Mezger’s friction-based massages. They misapplied the Swedish name to Mezger’s work. Once the connection was made in that era’s pop culture, there was no turning the tide of history.

Best For

Swedish massages are a great choice for beginners, people with low discomfort tolerance, and those who are looking for more full-body relief. These techniques can:

  • Release muscles all along the spine that tighten from poor posture
  • Stimulate body-wide circulation
  • Reduce swelling and edema, both from injuries and from chronic conditions
  • Promote relaxation and a feeling of well-being

These massages offer longer-term benefits too. In the days after a session, many people self-report a better mood, better sleep, mental clarity, and faster recovery from injuries and soreness.

Not For

There are some aches and pains that are too deep for Swedish massages to really target. It may be more frustrating than relaxing to feel the masseuse get close to that tight joint… and then glide on by.

This style of massage uses oils, which you may be allergic to. You can request hypoallergenic oils… but a small portion of the population reacts to those as well. If this is the case, you may have no choice but to try another massage style.

Some people find the light strokes and tapping or vibrating touches to be irritating or ticklish. You can ask your massage therapist to press harder. However, there’s only so hard they can press and still call it a Swedish massage. In this case, you may want to consider the firmer pressure of a deep tissue massage.

Deep Tissue Massage

A female masseuse treating a male client with deep tissue massage.

Deep tissue massage’ is an umbrella term for a number of techniques loosely descended from Swedish massage. This includes medical massage, Active Release Techniques, and myofascial release. It is popular for sports-related injuries, physical therapy, and for people who have stubborn aches and pains that gentler massages can’t get rid of.

How it’s Done

Deep tissue massage therapy may be used for both targeted body parts and full bodywork. You’ll need to undress enough for the massage therapist to work. However, if you’re only there for a shoulder injury, there’s no need to take off your pants.

During the session, your massage therapist will identify sore or tight areas of your body and apply increasing pressure there. They will use their fingers, thumbs, elbows, forearms, and fists. Once you’re warmed up, some zealous practitioners may even climb up and use their knees and clean feet for maximum leverage and force.

A note about pain: deep tissue massage can be uncomfortable. You may experience pressure, stretching, or a bruising sensation. It shouldn’t feel sharp, like a stabbing or tearing pain.

The amount of pressure used isn’t the only difference between this and Swedish techniques. Here, the focus is on specific knots in the body instead of the whole body. Short, slow, deliberate strokes may be employed. The masseuse will also apply steady pressure, gradually ramping up as the deep knot of tension starts to loosen.

History of Deep Tissue Massage

A man having a deep tissue massage.

This intense and intensely relieving massage style gained widespread traction in North America thanks to the Canadian Doctor Therese Phimmer. She studied the principles of Swedish massage and the various deep tissue techniques available at the time. These were combined with her medical training and knowledge of human physiology.

Phimmer created a set of guidelines, effective techniques, and best practices. These were published in book form in 1949. Her book was quite a hit, launching an international obsession with this ‘no pain, no gain’ kind of massage therapy.

Best For

Deep tissue work is often used for specific complaints like:

  • Pulled hamstrings during a sport
  • Quadriceps pain after an overenthusiastic workout
  • Long term neck pain
  • Stubborn back pain due to scoliosis of the spine
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Decreased range of motion in the shoulder

It may also be used as part of medical massage, for instance, to relieve lymphedema. There is also anecdotal evidence that it has helped some people with nerve damage find temporary relief from chronic pain. The pain will return, as this massage can’t relieve the underlying injury or condition. However, regular deep tissue massages may be worth it for people struggling with pain that’s impacting their life.

Not For

Deep tissue massage may leave you feeling bruised, but it shouldn’t bruise you up. However, this intense technique may be a poor fit for people who:

  • Are elderly, with reduced bone density and skin thickness
  • People with spinal damage
  • Those who have recently injured themselves, as it could aggravate the injury
  • People with a low tolerance for discomfort

Women who are pregnant should also proceed with caution. You may be able to book a prenatal massage that uses a combination of deep tissue and other techniques. These massages are designed to be both safe and as effective as the standard variety.

If you have gotten repeated deep tissue massages and the same problems keep cropping up, you may be better off talking to a medical professional. There could be an underlying condition that won’t clear itself up until it’s directly treated.

Deep Tissue Massage vs. Swedish Massage

A couple relaxing in a spa.

Let’s set these two popular techniques up head to head, taking a look at their pros and cons:

Possible Benefits

No two bodies react the same way to massages. That being said, both techniques may offer:

  • Muscle pain relief
  • Headache relief
  • Stress relief, especially stress held in the neck, shoulders, and back
  • Increased circulation

Swedish massage adds to lymphatic circulation. These massages may include oh-so-relaxing face and scalp massages.

Deep tissue massage can increase the range of motion, release tight fascia, and offer pain relief in deeper joints than Swedish massage can touch.

Possible Risks

A skilled masseuse is unlikely to harm you with either style of massage. The greatest risk to both is that you simply have a disappointing session. You can minimize that by carefully deciding what style to go with, explaining your complaints to the massage therapist, and giving feedback during the session. This will help them tailor the techniques to your body.

There is a small chance of pain, bruising, or pinching sensations during a deep tissue massage.

Both of these massages may be over-relied, masking an underlying condition that needs treatment.

Length of Sessions

A therapist doing neck massage on woman client.

Swedish massages typically involve the whole body. For that reason, it’s challenging to squeeze everything into a half-hour. One to two-hour sessions is more typical here.

Meanwhile, you can certainly get a two-hour-long deep tissue massage. However, this might be a challenge for you and your masseuse’s endurance. Half an hour is fairly typical for targeted massage, and one hour for full bodywork.


Massages given by students are lighter on the wallet than those by highly experienced practitioners. You can also expect a higher fee in big cities with a high cost of living. Finally, booking a massage with extras like hot stones, aromatherapy, or additional treatments will cost more than a basic service.

However, the most important factor in the final price is time. Massages are typically booked in half-hour or one-hour increments. This tends to be a flat fee, with a two-hour rubdown costing twice as much as the one-hour service.

So is a Swedish more expensive than deep tissue, or vice versa? Let’s take a look at some typical fees:

Low End

Book a session through a school of massage therapy and you can get a student practicing techniques on you under the watchful eye of an instructor. Student-grade massages may run you $35 for an hour. Sometimes you’ll get whatever technique they’re teaching on the syllabus, while other times you can request what you want.

Mid Range

A typical mid-range massage at a chain spa may run you $90 for an hour of blissful Swedish techniques, $100 for standard deep tissue, and $110 for sports-focused deep tissue work. The extra fee there is for the expertise of a highly trained massage therapist who understands the ins and outs of typical sports-related injuries and complaints.

High End

Spas attached to five-star hotels, or those with a star-studded client list, command a steep price tag. Even if you stay away from gimmicks like caviar-infused massage oil and gold leaf body wrap, you’ll feel the hit to your wallet. Expect to pay about $200 for an hour of Swedish massage and $220 for deep tissue.

Note: four-hand massages are typically twice as expensive, as you’re paying for two therapists’ time and expertise.

As you can see, deep tissue massages seem to be about 10 percent more expensive than Swedish-style massage. This is for a couple of reasons. Deep tissue massages are trendier, summoning a higher price tag. They also require more training to do correctly, and they take more of a toll on the massage therapist’s body. That extra $10 you’re paying may go to your masseuse’s next deep tissue wrist massage.

Where to Get Them

Both of these techniques are widely available in most spas (except those that focus on Eastern modalities like Reiki and Shiatsu). Swedish massages, in particular, are enormously popular in the West. They’re also a foundational technique taught in most massage schools. If you want a Swedish massage, you won’t have difficulty finding a trained practitioner.

Deep tissue massages are a little trickier. Yes, they’re trendy and it seems like every spa is advertising one. Ask yourself, is this spa really capable of giving you the care that you need? These techniques can cause harm to an inexperienced pair of hands.

This goes double if you’re rehabilitating a stubborn injury or dealing with health issues. Before you book, see what qualifications and experienced massage therapists have.

Which Massage Should You Book?

A masseuse talking with female client before the spa treatment at wellness center.

Both forms of massage offer substantial relief from stress, aches, and pains. Swedish massage is a better fit for day-to-day stress, edema, stubborn headaches, and mild pain. It’s also a great choice for massage beginners.

What about deep tissue massage? The firm pressure, laser-targeted to your sore and knotted muscles, is great for restoring mobility and attacking deep aches and pains. However, if you’re thinking about getting your first massage therapy session, booking an hour-long deep tissue massage is like jumping into the deep end of the pool.

You may need to build up to the intensity with a few sessions of Swedish.