Massage Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

Massage Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

- Cloud Massage Brand Team

Massage therapist

Massage therapy and physical therapy are commonly confused. Both can be useful to help recover from injuries, manage pain, and restore function. However, understanding the differences is important. While both can help, they help in different ways and in some cases massage therapy can be more useful, or the other way around.

Read on to find out more about the differences between massage therapy vs physical therapy, and how the two treatments work.

What is Massage Therapy and How Does It Work?

Massage therapy involves manipulating soft tissues, using manual muscle manipulation on areas of concern. Massage therapy can help with pain management, relieve stress and induce relaxation. 

Massage therapy is a useful treatment for those who are recovering from injuries, as well people who suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Massage therapy is a great solution to relieve pain during pregnancy and for athletes (who often find targeted muscle massages improves performance). It is also part of an overall wellness lifestyle. Many perfectly healthy people visit a massage therapist or use massage therapy devices regularly to help them manage stress and get a break. 

Here are the different types of massage therapy available, which include:

1. Swedish massage

This is a very gentle, full-body massage. Swedish massages' are typically used for relaxation and to release muscle knots. It's also less intense and intimidating and is often recommended to people new to massages.

2. Hot stone massage

The massage therapist uses heated stones either instead of or in addition to their hands. It's used to ease muscle tension, alleviate pain, improve blood flow and relieve stress. Often times Swedish and hot stone massages are combined.

3. Aromatherapy massage

In an aromatherapy massage the therapist will use essential oils when they apply the massage. The oils used are chosen to support your goals, and this is typically done for people with anxiety or depression, or who just need a mood boost. Essential oils can also help relieve pain.

4. Deep tissue massage

This involves using more pressure and is typically for people who specifically have muscle issues such as soreness, tightness, or an imbalance. This type of massage is often recommended after a muscle injury.

5. Sports massage

If you are engaged in an athletic activity, your coach might send you to a sports massage therapist. The massage therapist will target areas you need to improve performance and relieve pain. It can also help you relax prior to a big event.

6. Shiatsu massage

This is a Japanese style of massage that helps relax you and relieve pain and muscle tension. A Shiatsu massager can help relieve tension through deep-kneading motions. It's also been shown to improve sleep quality.

There are many options of massages out there, depending on your specific goals. You can ask a massage therapist which one(s) are right for you.

In some cases, home massage therapy can be useful, although you should typically seek the advice of a therapist rather than doing it on your own. Home massage therapy is also handy to soothe tired muscles and simply to make you feel better. This involves quality pieces of massage equipment, which can help provide relief to various parts of the body.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy, on the other hand, is defined as using exercises and physical activities to restore strength and movement. It's also sometimes called physical medicine and/or rehabilitation. While physical therapists may also engage in soft tissue manipulation, they also provide focused exercises, which are done both in the therapist's office and at home. Each patient gets a specific, personalized treatment plan.

Physical therapy is generally prescribed as part of a rehabilitation program after an injury, surgery, or both. Their goal is to restore a patient's lifestyle and provide methods to prevent relapse. They will use active therapy, such as exercises and stretches, passive therapy, such as heat, ice and other methods, and manual therapy, which includes massage but also moving the affected limb(s) to improve range of motion.

A subset of physical therapy is occupational therapy, which focuses on what you need to do to be able to get back to work quickly, and another subset is hand therapy, which falls between the two (because hands are so complicated, they get their own specialty). Physical therapists may specialize in particular types of injury or body parts.

Physical therapists typically work in hospitals, in standalone clinics, and sometimes in gym-like settings depending on their specialty.

man in physical therapy

What's the Difference: Massage Therapy vs Physical Therapy

Below are the key differences between massage therapy vs physical therapy:

  1. Physical therapy is typically prescribed by a doctor, while massage therapy is something you can seek out on your own. Check to see if your state requires a referral for physical therapy. Sometimes you can't just go get physical therapy, but you can and should ask your doctor about it if you are having difficulty with motion, strength, and activities of daily living.
  2. Physical therapists have years of training and a doctorate. Most massage therapists have a one year certificate. This is because physical therapists provide a much wider range of services. A physical therapist may use massage as part of a program, whilst a massage therapist only does massage. This is not to say that massage therapists are not skilled, but they are highly specialist and have less to learn.
  3. Physical therapy is for people with real mobility problems, while almost anyone can benefit from a good massage. Physical therapy might be prescribed after an injury from a fall, after surgery (for example, people who have had breast cancer surgery often have mobility problems in the arm and shoulder on that side).
  4. Physical therapists have an overall goal of restoring previous lifestyle, and typically work with a patient for a few weeks or months. Massage therapists have an overall goal of promoting relaxation and well being and may work with a patient for years or lifelong.
  5. Massage therapists are not generally providing primary care after an injury, although they may sometimes be brought in. In fact, a physical therapist might send you to a massage therapist!
  6. Massage therapists often use more different types of massage than physical therapists.
  7. Physical therapy is typically focused entirely on the injured area, whilst massage therapists work with the entire body. In fact, some physical therapists specialize in particular body parts, such as hand therapists.

You also can't do physical therapy on your own; although your physical therapist will almost certainly give you "homework," it's not something you can do without guidance. However, with the right equipment, such as a foot and leg massager or massage gun, you can do some massage work on yourself or your partner. This allows you to get some of the benefits of massage therapy in the comfort of your own home.

How to Choose Massage Therapy vs Physical Therapy

Overall, physical therapists help you recover from a specific injury or illness, and have the goal of discharging you once you are "better," or better enough that you can do the rest of the work on your own. Massage therapists are wellness providers who are as much about preventing injuries as treating them.

Typically, you would see a physical therapist on the recommendation of a physician or surgeon. Meanwhile, massage therapists work in clinics all over and you can often just walk in and make an appointment. That said, if you have an injury or health condition, you should talk to your doctor before going to a massage therapist.

Massage therapists and physical therapists are sometimes confused because they both employ massage techniques. However, there are significant differences between the two professions and treatments. Physical therapy is medical care given after an injury or surgery, whilst massage therapy is part of overall, holistic wellness. 

If you are interested in trying home massage therapy, Cloud Massage offers high quality foot massagers and massage guns to support your health and let you get a good massage in the privacy of your home.