Physio vs massage therapist – how do you know which is right for you? An expert advises

Massage therapy plays an important role in the relaxation of pain.
Massage therapy plays an important role in the relaxation of pain.
Getty Images/Liliia Kyrylenko
  • Your body might show signs that you need a massage ASAP, but do you need to see a physio or massage therapist?
  • Understanding the differences between the two types of therapy may help you decide which one will best suit your needs.
  • A physiotherapist explains the differences between two common massage options: physiotherapy and Thai massage.

Your muscles are stiff, your back pains, or your posture is off: with that pain or discomfort, should you book an appointment with a physiotherapist or massage therapist?

Online deals from Hyperli and WikiDeals are tempting: several Thai and Swedish massages offered are as low as R180 for a 60-minute full-body massage. But, as our headline implies, you may need to consider if you should make your way to the physio clinic or wellness spa to be kneaded. 

READ MORE | My Story | How retrenchment led me to open my own massage parlour

Speaking to News24, Melissa van der Merwe, physiotherapist at Candice Sumner Physiotherapy in Pinelands, Cape Town, says: "If you are someone who has never found yourself questioning whether or not your body needs a good massage, consider yourself lucky. However, if you, like the rest of us, know that your body could do with less tension and are not quite sure which option to go for, then [read on]."

Van der Merwe highlights two of the many different massage options: Thai massage vs physiotherapist massage.

Thai massage

Thai massage is considered an ancient therapy and has mainly been practised in Thailand, van der Merwe explains. "Unlike your conventional massage, a Thai massage is performed while being fully clothed, and no oils are used during the session. When trying to understand the image of Thai massage, think 'assisted yoga positions'." 

During this massage, therapists use their bodies to manoeuvre your body into yoga-like positions, she says. "Rhythmic pressing, pulling, pushing or stretching are a few of the techniques used which results in energising the body without feeling like you overexerted yourself."

READ MORE | The healing powers of Thai massage

Given the nature of the massage, a few benefits include, but are not limited to:    

  • Relaxes the muscles
  • Improves muscle flexibility
  • Improves joint motions
  • Improves blood circulation 

In a 2017 study, the researchers noted that "the effects of traditional Thai massage have been shown to enhance health and well-being."

Physiotherapist massage

A physiotherapy massage is considered a hands-on approach, says van der Merwe. She explains:

During the session, you would be required to expose certain body parts, and the use of certain oils are to be expected when thinking of releasing muscles without causing too much friction against the skin.

A typical physiotherapist session will include an assessment of your pain or discomfort. The physiotherapist will then use different testing skills to reach a diagnosis and be able to direct the treatment towards a specific injury or structure at fault to eliminate the pain you are experiencing, says van der Merwe. 

READ MORE | How physiotherapy can help you during pregnancy

There are a few things to consider with the physiotherapy approach:

  • The session will be structured around functional movement patterns.
  • It is extremely beneficial for muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints.
  • It improves physical impairments as opposed to being purely for relaxation.

As for deciding between booking a massage or physio appointment, van der Merwe advises: 

"Sometimes, wondering if you are making the right decision puts a lot of added pressure on the body. If you know your pain is injury-related, it would be best to consult a first-line practitioner for the best possible outcome. 

"Although when deciding between Thai massage vs Physiotherapist massage, please remember there is no correct answer. Given that these are two completely different techniques, it mainly comes down to personal preference."

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