We Explain the Difference Between Swedish and Deep Tissue Massage

BY: Sarah Gorr |Jul 12, 2018

For the longest time, I saw massages as a rare treat for the wealthy, people who could afford spas in tropical locales and knew why you'd wear cucumber slices over your eyes. (Do people actually do this? I've never checked.) I couldn't tell you how many kinds of massages there were, let alone the best type of massage to get. Fast forward to today, and massages are a regular part of my self-care routine. Like many desk-bound 30-year-olds, I started suffering from neck and back pain that wouldn't go away no matter how much yoga I did.

Over the years, I've gone to upscale spas, chiropractic offices, big chains, and more pared down, clinical offices. That means now not only do I have an opinion on the best type of massage, I can even tell you the difference between Swedish and deep-tissue massage. Those are the two massage types I'll break down for you today by pitting them head to head. Then, the next time you book a massage, you can be sure you're getting just what you need.

Swedish Massage

What it's like: Soothing, relaxing

Who it's great for: People looking to relax

What to expect: Long, soothing strokes; adjustable, but often gentle pressure

My first Swedish massage was at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and it was a treatment gotten more out of necessity than for fun. I suffer from regular migraines, and at the time I wasn't yet on medication to mitigate them. When it hit, I was in agony and also furious at losing a day in a city I'd never been to before. The pain was so intense, I couldn't handle the noise of the casino or the brightness of the poolside or the smell of the buffet. The only thing I could do was lie down in the dark, which meant a massage was not just the perfect thing but the only thing I could really do. It was relaxing, soothing, and everything I needed to help mitigate the awfulness of the migraine. It also made me feel like I was still able to enjoy my vacation.

That said, I've gotten a few Swedish massages at various establishments since then, and my experience hasn't always been the same. In fact, the last few I've had have felt, well, a bit like a waste of money. No matter how much pressure I ask for, it just doesn't address the tension pent up in my shoulders, and at the end of an hour I'm more likely to feel a bit bored than relaxed.

Deep-Tissue Massage

What it's like: Healing, but sometimes painful

Who it's great for: People looking to eliminate deep knots, kinks, and tension

What to expect: Hard, kneading movements and intense pressure

If a Swedish massage is so relaxing you can literally fall asleep during one, then a deep-tissue massage is a lot more like getting run through a meat tenderizer. And that's the crux of the real difference between Swedish and deep tissue massage. I'd never considered one or thought too much about the benefits until my shoulder and neck pain was so persistent, I got desperate. A friend recommended her massage therapist, but with a warning: "This isn't gonna be like a spa retreat. It's gonna hurt." I didn't think too much of it at the time, but it didn't take too long into the session to realize just how right she was. The therapists were still happy to adjust the pressure as needed, but the flowing motions I was accustomed to were replaced with knuckles and elbows pressing deep into my back. There were definitely points where my therapist was really needling my trouble spots and I could almost feel tears coming to my eyes the pain was so intense.

That's not to say it was like that for the whole hour; plenty of times it's every bit as soothing as a Swedish massage. The real difference came in how I felt afterward: a little bit sore, yes, but almost totally relieved of my back issues. And for me, these results last at least a couple of weeks.

Which massage is best?

Deep tissue.

Obviously, they both have their perks. Swedish massages are great for relaxing, but deep tissue is the best massage for back pain, which means deep tissue takes the cake overall for me. There are so many different ways to relax, including other spa treatments like facials, but few that have the long-lasting results of a deep-tissue massage. In fact, every Swedish massage I've had since experiencing a deep-tissue massage has felt like a disappointment, even when all I was hoping for was to relieve some anxiety. From now on, thermal baths and facials will be my relaxing treatment of choice. Massages are all about no pain, no gain.



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