A Brief History of Massage Therapy

History of Massage Therapy

Written by: Dr. Jocelyn Taitt, ND
Edited by: Dr. Peter Taitt, PhD


It seems to be a universally instinctive response that we should rub an area of our body where we are experiencing soreness or fatigue. Prehistoric cave paintings in the Pyrenees dating to BCE c. 15,0001 appear to depict some form of therapeutic touch, but it’s difficult to say exactly when and where massage practices first started to be performed in any kind of methodical way. Ancient literature, artwork and archaeological evidence reveal that massage practices existed in many ancient cultures such as India, China, Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Japan, Thailand and Korea.25

In English the word “massage” is directly borrowed from French. Earlier origins of the word may stem from the Arabic “massa” meaning “to touch, feel”, or the Greek verb “μάσσω” (“masso”) meaning “to knead, to handle, to work with the hands.” However, the word that ancient Greeks used when referring to massage was “anatripsis” (“rubbing up”), and the Latin word was “frictio” (“rub”).25

Massage Practices from Antiquity to Medieval Times

BCE c. 3000 to 700: Shatapatha Brahmana is an ancient Indian Vedic text, the exact date of which is highly contentious – several scholars suspect that the oral tradition of the text dates to ~3000 BCE, while it may not have been written down until about 700 BCE, with a final version being produced in 300 BCE2. The text describes Vedic history, mythology and rituals, including those with sacrificial fire. In the text ( it is written that the sacrificer is anointed as such: “A rubbing down of the sacrificer, with all manner of sweet-smelling substances takes place before sprinkling him with fat…” (translation by Julius Eggeling). Some scholars believe that the text’s references to the position of the Krittikas (the open star cluster Pleiades) indicate that the voice behind the prose of the text belonged to someone who would have been observing the stars at around 3000 BCE. Thus some scholars suspect that the oral tradition of the text dates approximately to that time.

Figure 3.1 Reproduction of artwork on the ancient Egyptian Tomb of Akmanthor

BCE c. 1000-100, India: Chapter 31 of the Sushruta Samhita (an ancient Sanskrit Ayurvedic medical text) discusses the use of sesame oil and ghee (clarified butter) for massage purposes. The text likely originated as oral tradition around 1000 BCE, with the written text being completed anywhere from the sixth to first century BCE. Additionally, a Buddhist text called the Khandhaka (dating to ~400 BCE) lists massage practices that Buddha deemed either acceptable or inappropriate, and the Mahabharata (an epic legendary text also dating to ~400 BCE) describes a lavish scene in which a prince is massaged by 108 servants in his bathing room, and is then washed with sweet-scented water poured out of golden pots.9

BCE, Eighth to Second Centuries: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey make reference to the practice of massage with oils and fragrant substances to aid wound healing and relieve muscle aches in tired warriors. Later ancient Greek writers such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, Lucian and others reveal that deep friction massage of muscles with olive oil was a commonly employed therapy for Greek athletes, and oil – kept in amphorae – was provided to all who attended gymnasia and athletic festivals.10,12 Hippocrates wrote that: “The physician must be skilled in many things, and particularly friction [massage].”18

BCE 722-481: Massage is referred to in 30 chapters of the earliest Chinese medical texts called the Huang Di Nei Jing – a compilation of the known Chinese medical knowledge up to that time, and which became the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The knowledge contained in the texts, however, is believed to originate in the time of the Yellow Emperor (2711-2598 BCE, which pre-dates written Chinese history).6,25

BCE c. 7th century, Japan: Japanese monks travelled to China to study Buddhism. They were exposed to Chinese massage practices, which the Japanese later developed into their own style of massage called “anma”. Anma eventually developed into the practice known as Shiatsu, which uses massage to balance energy in the body.1,20

BCE 500: Jīvaka Komarabhācca1,19 – also known as Shivago Komarpaj or Dr. Shivago – was the Buddha’s personal physician and founded Traditional Thai Massage (Nuad Boran). He based Thai Massage on a combination of Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, including acupressure and assisted yoga postures. Rather than using oils, the massage recipient remains clothed, and instead of being rubbed the body is pressed, pulled, rocked and stretched.

BCE 493: The Book of Esther (2:12) in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh documents the beauty regimen of the women who were presented to the Persian King Xerxes I (also identified as Ahasuerus), including “treatments” with oil and myrrh.5,30

BCE 327-325: Alexander The Great campaigned in India, during which time Alexander and his soldiers were exposed to Indian massage traditions, and brought them home with them to the kingdom of Macedon. From this time forward Indian massage traditions were gradually incorporated into Greek, Roman, and Turkish practices.8,16,20

BCE 100-44: Roman emperor Julius Caesar was known to suffer from sudden bouts of weakness, convulsions and fainting. In his time this was chalked up to epilepsy – seen by the Romans as a sign of divine possession. Modern scholars now believe his symptoms are more likely attributable to a series of mini strokes.2 After such episodes occurred, Julius Caesar would receive massage treatments to support his recovery.11

CE 130-210, Roman Empire: Galen (Aelius or Claudius Galenus) was a revered Greek physician and philosopher living in the Roman Empire.23 He served as personal physician to Septimius Severus and several other emperors, as well as to the gladiators of the High Priest of Asia, to whom he administered massage with olive oil. Galen was a prolific author of medical texts that summarized and expanded on earlier Greek medical knowledge, some of which included discussions of the many health benefits of massage. However, Galen’s texts were not translated into Latin during his time, and as the Roman Empire fell and the period known as the Early Middle Ages (formerly referred to as the Dark Ages, roughly 5th-10th centuries CE) began, the study of Galen’s texts and ancient Greek medical knowledge (including Greek massage) practically disappeared from the medical practices of the Latin West, although massage continued to be practiced to a lesser extent by folk medicine women, midwives, and nuns (who began to take on the role of caring for the sick). Meanwhile, Galen’s works continued to be studied and preserved in Byzantium – the mostly Greek-speaking remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire.18,23

CE 581-618, China: Dr. Sun Si Miao – dubbed the “King of Medicine” – of the Sui and Tang dynasties developed ten new massage techniques and systematized the treatment of childhood diseases with massage therapy, and the Chinese Office of Imperial Physicians established a department of massage therapy. During this time Chinese massage practices (then called “anwu”) became popularized in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Islamic world.15

CE 7th – 8th centuries: The Byzantine regions of Syria and Western Mesopotamia began to be conquered by Arab Muslims. After 750 CE, Muslims began to have Syrian Christians make the first translations of some of Galen’s works from Greek to Arabic. This sparked a renewed popularity and spreading of the knowledge of Galen and Greek medicine (including massage) throughout the medieval and early Islamic Middle East.23

CE 980-1037: Avicenna18,21 (or Ibn Sīnā) was a Persian physician, astronomer and philosopher who is now regarded as one of the most significant minds of the Islamic Golden Age – comparable to Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci (who lived centuries later). He produced over 450 writings consisting of a systematization and compilation of the Persian and Greco-Roman medical knowledge that had been translated into Arabic up to his time, and on which Avicenna expanded with the inclusion of his own medical insights. One of the most famous of these texts, “The Canon of Medicine”, included instruction on what became the established precedent for the logical assessment of conditions, and discussed the use of analgesic substances and massage for pain relief. 

This text was so influential that it became a standard medical text in many Western and Eastern medieval universities and remained in use until approximately the year 1650.21 It is thanks to Avicenna and the Arabic translations of Galen’s writings that knowledge of Greco-Roman massage and medicine were not lost, but were instead revived in both the Islamic world and Christian West. The renewed interest in ancient Greek and also Latin texts eventually inspired a new era of innovation in medicine, art and technology in Europe – the Renaissance (c. 1300-1600).18

Figure 3.2 Huangdi “The Yellow Emperor” reigned in China from ~ 2698–2598 BCE.

Figure 3.3 Jīvaka Komarabhācca (“Dr. Shivago”) – Buddha’s physician

Figure 3.4 Galen, as depicted by 18th-century engraver Georg Paul Busch

Figure 3.5 Avicenna    

Figure 3.6 Page from one of the oldest copies (dating to 1143 CE) of Avicenna’s “Cannon of Medicine”

The Renaissance and Enlightenment

CE 1316: The Bolognese physician Mondino de Luzzi (or Liuzzi) reintroduced the public practice of human cadaver dissection. He published the first modern treatise on human anatomy: “Anathomia corporis humani.”11,26

CE 1368-1644 – Ming Dynasty, China: the Chinese massage tradition flourished and became known as Tui Na. Many texts on Tui Na were written during this time, especially on pediatric applications, and diagnosis and treatment techniques were further refined. Tui Na maintained its growing popularity almost continuously up to the present day.15

CE c. 1510-1590: French military surgeon Ambroise Paré favoured the use of massage to enhance the recovery of orthopedic surgery patients. He also classified several types of massage movements.3,13,18

CE 1543: Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius established the foundations of human anatomy in the West through his work: “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (On the Fabric of the Human Body).11,18

CE 1569: Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale (or Mercurialis) wrote the first text on the field of sports medicine (including massage): “De Arte Gymnastica”.3,11,18

CE 1584: While teaching at Cambridge University, English physician Timothy Bright published a medical text in two parts: “Hygieina, on Preserving Health” and “Therapeutica, on restoring health”, in which he encouraged the use of baths, exercise and massage for good health.18

CE c. 1600: The Japanese publication San-Tsai-Tou-Hoei provided instruction on passive and active massage techniques.3,18

CE 1608-1679: Italian physiologist and physicist Giovanni Borelli performed multiple animal dissections and made a study of biomechanics.18 Likening animal and human bodies to machines, he was likely the first to have introduced the concept that movement is a function of muscular contraction.

CE 1628: Prior to this date most Western physicians believed that the lungs were responsible for moving blood throughout the body, but then English physician William Harvey observed that it was instead the heart and blood vessels that were responsible for circulation. This new understanding illuminated the circulatory benefits of massage and furthered its acceptance as a therapeutic practice.17,18

CE 1728-1797: Samuel-Auguste Tissot11,28 was a prominent Swiss physician who enjoyed the high regard of Napoléon Bonaparte, and whose philosophical arguments were repeated by Kant and Voltaire. Strangely, Tissot gained great notoriety in his time for writing an entire medical treatise on the supposed ill effects of masturbation. Fortunately, he also went on to publish several works on gymnastic exercises and the use of massage for treating many ailments.



Figure 3.7 Cover illustration depicting human cadaver dissection on a 1493 version of Mondino de Luzzi’s “Anathomia corporis humani” (originally written in 1316).

Figure 3.8 English physician William Harvey.

Figure 3.9 Samuel-Auguste Tissot

The Modern Era

CE 1776-1839: Per Henrik Ling1,18,27 was a Swedish physiologist, educator, and pioneer of physical therapy. Having found that fencing and physical activity relieved his symptoms of gout he became keenly interested in the benefits of physical fitness. Ling versed himself in Franz Nachtegall’s Danish system of gymnastics, and established a gymnastic institute in Sweden in 1804. After completing further self-studies of the entire curriculum of medical doctors he established his own system of gymnastics called Medical Gymnastics. He also invented several of the pieces of equipment that we now more commonly associate with the word “gymnastics”: the box horse, wall bars and beams. Ling’s Medical Gymnastics included calisthenics, stretching and to a lesser extent massage. In 1813 he founded the Swedish Royal Central Gymnastic Institute and his system of gymnastics gained national recognition. Since that time he has often, and controversially, been thought of as the “Father of Massage”, and the development of Swedish Massage has often been attributed to him. However this credit is not exactly correct, as the massage techniques in his gymnastics were never codified or meant to be practiced independently of his whole gymnastics system.1

CE 1838-1909: The true founder of the system of Swedish massage was Johann Georg Mezger, 1,18,24 a Dutch physician who had a similar interest in gymnastics as Ling. At the time, the French had translated several Chinese books on massage into French (which was the international language of the nineteenth century). Mezger practiced French “friction methods” on patients with minor sprains, and in 1868 wrote his doctoral dissertation “The Treatment of Distorio Pedis with Frictions” which became the basis for Swedish Massage. Combining French massage techniques with his medical knowledge, and using the common French terminology, Mezger developed the five techniques for which Swedish Massage is known: effleurage (long, gliding strokes), petrissage (kneading of the muscles), friction (circular rubbing motions), tapotement (tapping or percussion), and vibration (shaking of the muscles). As a doctor Mezger was in a better position than Ling to promote massage on a medical and scientific basis, and his services became widely sought by European royalty and nobility. Mezger famously used massage to treat a major hip injury suffered by King Gustav V of Sweden, with great success.

CE 1888: In Washington D.C. Hartvig Nissen opened the Swedish Health Institute for the Treatment of Chronic Diseases by Swedish Movements and Massage – the first massage school in the United States.18

CE 1894: In response to the prevalence of untrained and unqualified members of the public offering questionable massage services, The Society of Trained Masseuses (now known as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy) was founded in Great Britain by four nurses. The Society developed a board certification program and emphasized a medical model of massage therapy training. Graduates of the program administered massage to World War I casualties, and by the end of the war the Society already had nearly 5,000 members.18,22

CE 1852-1943: John Harvey Kellogg, a popular American doctor and developer of dry cereals (such as cornflakes) contributed to the general public’s enthusiasm for massage. His book “Art of Massage: A Practical Manual for the Nurse, the Student and the Practitioner” was published after his death in 1943.18

CE 1936: Lymphatic drainage massage was introduced by Drs. Emil and Estrid Vodder in Paris.3

CE 1943: The American Association of Masseurs and Masseuses was created in Chicago, and in 1983 was renamed the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). The AMTA now has over 58,000 members.18

CE 1952: British doctor John Cyriax developed Deep Transverse Friction Massage – a form of massage that aims to stimulate connective tissue regeneration and prevent the formation of adhesions.3,14

Figure 3.10 Pehr Henrik Ling

Figure 3.11 Swedish Gymnastics at the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm, c. 1900

Figure 3.12 Johann Georg Mezger, true founder of Swedish massage

Figure 3.13 John Harvey Kellogg

CE 1956: The first official Tui Na training course was established in Shanghai, and by 1978 there were whole hospitals completely dedicated to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, including Tui Na), and all other hospitals included TCM departments. In 1987 the Chinese National Tui Na Association was established.15

CE 1984: At the Olympics in Los Angeles, sports massage was made available to all athletes for the first time.3

CE 1985: Chair massage was introduced by David Palmer.3

CE 1991: The Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance (CMTA) was formed.

CE 1992: The American Massage Therapy Association established the standardized National Certification Examination for therapeutic massage.11

CE 2003: The Federation of Massage Therapy Regulatory Authorities of Canada (FOMTRAC) was established. FOMTRAC represents the provincial agencies that regulate massage therapy under legislative authority.7 Its members include the colleges of massage therapists of British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, which regulate the practice of massage therapy in their respective provinces. In other Canadian jurisdictions various other massage associations provide processes of voluntary self-regulation for their members. In 2013 FOMTRAC formed a National Accreditation Planning Committee that has set forth a proposal for the establishment of national accreditation standards for massage therapy education institutions in Canada.7

CE 2005: The Federation of State Massage Licensing Boards was established in the United States.3


1 Note that “BCE”(before the common era) – the newer convention of chronological notation – is used in this text, referring to the time before the life of Jesus Christ (formerly denoted “BC”), and the time since the approximate birth of Jesus Christ is now 2 Some scholars believe that the text’s references to the position of the Krittikas (the open star cluster Pleiades) indicate that the voice behind the prose of the text belonged to someone who would have been observing the stars at around 3000 BCE. Thus some scholars suspect that the oral tradition of the text dates approximately to that time. 3 Save only for the years c. 1912-1934 when any forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine (including Tui Na) were largely discouraged by doctors who trained in Western medicine, and were also temporarily banned under the leadership of Mao Ze Dong.


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