Complete Guide to Massage Therapy for First-Timers

Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to massage therapy among those who have never tried it, but we believe it is an integral part of personal care, mental health, injury prevention and your overall health and wellbeing. Allen and I have been seeing Chapel Hill massage therapist Lisa Greene of Integrated Bodywork for the past two years, and it has been one of the best investments in our health we’ve ever made. Between running our own businesses anchored at desks and our regular demanding fitness routines, we both experience regular aches and pains, injuries, headaches, tension and stress, all of which are significantly relieved and often entirely eliminated with regular sessions with Lisa.

That’s why together with her, we’ve created this beginner’s guide to massage therapy for prospective massage patients to introduce the practice to those who have never tried it and those who should try it again. As our clients can attest, we enthusiastically recommend massage therapy to anyone and everyone as a regular part of your health routine. Traveler or not, find out why massage therapy can become your new favorite practice for health and happiness.

private couples massage room

Photo Credit: smalljude, Flickr


First, let’s look at some of the common misconceptions that are out there and lead people to stay away from massage therapy.



MISCONCEPTION: Massage is only for relaxation.

FACT: Massage is absolutely for relaxation, but that’s not all. Massage can alleviate chronic pain, restore restful sleep, promote mental health, reduce stress, aid in healing post injury or surgery, and so much more.

MISCONCEPTION: Massage is too invasive and touchy-feely.

FACT: You dictate how intimate you want your massage to be. If you’d prefer to remain clothed and/or restrict the areas your therapist touches, that’s ok! Massage is an intimate form of treatment, sure, but therapists are qualified professionals and will handle your privacy and comfort as such, and if you are undressed, your private areas will remain covered with a sheet or towel during the entire appointment.

MISCONCEPTION: Massage is too expensive and not worth the cost.

FACT: Yes, massage therapy is considered a luxury for most. But if you have chronic pain or other health issues that can be alleviated with massage, it is a worthwhile investment in your health that can save you the financial, physical and emotional costs of future injuries, medications and more extreme treatments, like surgery, down the road. If you don’t have health issues, massage can still be worth the expense as a way to relax, relieve stress and feel good simply because you deserve it!

[See our bonus tips at the end of this guide for ways to save money on massage!]

MISCONCEPTION: Massage is too painful.

FACT: As we’ll discuss further in this guide, some techniques aren’t always purely enjoyable, but that’s usually because it takes more intense pressure or manipulation to get the desired relaxation in a muscle and not because your therapist is injuring you. Some discomfort is to be expected, but if a certain technique is ever too painful, by all means, let your therapist know, and he or she will adjust accordingly.

MISCONCEPTION: Massage corrects problems in one session.

FACT: While it’s likely you will feel great and experience notable pain and stress reduction after just one session, long-term issues require long-term care. Regular massage creates better, more effective results with each consecutive session.



neck massage

Photo Credit: Visit Fingerlakes, Flickr

Now that we have those out of the way, let’s explore more about what massage therapy is, how it works and why it’s great for you.


Massage is the manipulation of the muscles and fascia (connective tissue) using the hands and other tools to release tension and correct improper muscle firing to alleviate pain and correct imbalances in the body. Through a variety of techniques, such as deep tissue massage and trigger point therapy, overactive or injured muscles are encouraged to heal and function properly to allow the musculoskeletal and other body systems to operate optimally.

Take, for example, those who sit for long periods of time at a desk (like me!) Remaining in a seated position causes different muscles to become overactive and tight, such as the hip flexors, calves and chest. When this happens, their opposite muscles–the low back/glutes, shoulders and feet–become loose and weakened, and these imbalances cause common ailments such as low back pain, shoulder and neck pain and plantar fasciitis. Massage therapy is a fantastic tool in loosening the tense muscles and restoring balance to the body to relieve such pain.



Massage isn’t just what’s shown in most ads: A therapist kneading the patient’s shoulders or lining hot stones along the spine. Massage comes in many different styles designed to address different issues, and skilled massage therapists will employ a variety of techniques to best suit each patient’s needs. There are also two primary realms of massage: medical and relaxation. Medical massage therapists, like Lisa, address very specific conditions in their patients using targeted techniques, sometimes in combination with each patient’s other healthcare services, like physical therapy. Relaxation massage is just what it sounds like: more general whole-body relaxation and care. This is often the style you will find at resorts, spas and major massage chains.

Both areas of massage therapy use a variety of techniques and styles:

  • Swedish Massage: One of the most well-known and common types of massage, it uses a series of five basic strokes moving toward the heart to promote circulation and relax tight muscles for all-over relaxation.
  • Deep Tissue Massage: Works in the deeper layer of muscles to break up adhesions and tension to restore optimal muscle movement.
  • Sports Massage: A technique designed specifically for athletes to promote recovery and enhance muscle performance.
  • Orthopedic Massage: A combination of sports massage and medical massage to address muscle, tendon and ligament weaknesses and injury.
  • Trigger Point Therapy: Direct pressure applied to small and extremely tense nodules within tense muscle fiber groups.
  • Lymph Drainage: Manipulating the tissue around lymph nodes to reduce tension and release lymph build up that can cause illness and disease.
  • Pregnancy Massage: Specialized pre- and post-natal massage for to alleviate pain and stress associated with pregnancy to promote both physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Reflexology: Applying pressure and movement to specific parts of the hands, feet and ears that correspond to other areas of the body.
  • Shiatsu: A traditional Japanese practice of using finger pressure on specific acupressure points.
  • Hot Stone Massage: Placing warmed stones on tense areas and sometimes adding pressure to the stones for additional relief.
  • Percussion: Using either the hands or specialized tools, a light and receptive pulse of pressure is applied to especially tense muscle areas.
  • Geriatric Massage: Specialized massage for elderly patients and the ailments associated with the aging process.
  • Cancer/Oncology Massage: Massage designed for cancer patients to alleviate the physical and emotional issues caused by cancer and its treatments.

Believe it or not, these techniques are a small selection of massage styles available. Find additional styles and specialized therapists through the American Massage Therapy Association’s Find a Massage Therapist tool.

Massage therapy may also be accompanied by non-massage practices:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Mild Electrical Stimulation with TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) Units – This sounds scary, but it’s not. My dad is a physical therapist and has been using this treatment with me and many of my athlete friends for years.
  • Music Therapy
  • Energy Work
  • Chiropractics and Physical Therapy
  • Biofeedback

any many, many other forms of treatment.


Traditional fully-clothed Thai Massage Photo Credit: Thomas Wanhoff, Flickr

Traditional fully-clothed Thai Massage
Photo Credit: Thomas Wanhoff, Flickr



The techniques listed above yield profound benefits in the body and mind by correcting imbalances, particularly with regular sessions, proper care in between them and coordination with other healthcare practices. By correcting these imbalances, massage therapy helps address and alleviate many health issues:

  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Joint pain and arthritis
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Poor circulation
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor balance, coordination and range of motion
  • Digestive problems
  • Stress and anxiety
  • TMJ
  • Carpal Tunnel
  • Sciatica

and many others.

With regular massage, patients often experience many noticeable positive changes in the body and mind:

  • Stress reduction and relaxation
  • Reduced or eliminated chronic aches and pain
  • Improved recovery after a surgery or injury
  • Better coordination and range of motion
  • Improved neurological integration and sensory perception
  • Minimized and eliminated headaches and migraines
  • Better mental and emotional health
  • Improved immune system
  • Improved digestion
  • Better circulation and blood pressure
  • Reduced pain caused by arthritis, carpal tunnel and sciatica
  • Improved eyesight


private couples massage room

Photo Credit: Dennis Wong, Flickr


Scheduling Your First Appointment and What To Do Before You Go

Research massage reputable and licensed facilities and therapists in your area. We recommend finding specialized bodywork and medical massage facilities if you need help with chronic or more severe issues. Integrated Bodywork in Chapel Hill is our preferred facility in NC’s Triangle area, but you can find others professionals here by location and specialty. Once you find a place you’d like to try, schedule your appointment during a low-stress and less busy point in your week. Leading up to your scheduled appointment, be sure to hydrate, and don’t eat a large meal right before.

When You Arrive at Your Appointment

Most facilities should start with an intake form for new patients detailing your health history, reason for visiting, allergies, and other relevant health information. The form may also ask about your preferred level of touch and massage style. Before beginning the massage, either in the consultation area or in your massage room, your massage therapist or a support staff member may ask further questions to review your intake form and clarify your needs to plan the best course of action for your appointment. Some specialists, like Lisa, may also ask for the contact information of your other healthcare professionals if needed to coordinate care and create a comprehensive plan to address more serious or complex health issues.

Before beginning the massage, your therapist will ask you to undress to your comfort level and leave the room to let you do so. They will knock before coming back in to make sure you are comfortable and covered on the table. Most people undress to their panties or briefs, and private areas remain covered by a sheet or towel through the entire appointment. But if you prefer to remain full or partially clothed, that’s completely ok, too! Therapists are trained to adjust their techniques to work around clothes. Your therapist will also likely ask you if the temperature of the room, music level, scent of the massage oil and other variables are satisfactory, and don’t be afraid to speak up if they’re not.

During Your Massage Appointment

During the appointment, your massage therapist should let you determine the conversation level as some people prefer to not talk at all during their appointments and others like to chat the whole time, though in our experience, some massage therapists don’t pick up on our desire to remain quiet until a few appointments in. If you prefer to remain quiet, don’t worry that you’re being impolite. You’re not–You’re there to enjoy a relaxing treatment, so therapists will not be offended. Many people even fall completely asleep during their sessions!

Aroma Massage Photo Credit: Tara Ankgor Hotel, Flickr

Aroma Massage
Photo Credit: Tara Ankgor Hotel, Flickr

Your massage therapist may employ some techniques that don’t always feel good, like deep tissue and trigger point, and that’s ok. Releasing muscle tension takes some tough love in particularly tense areas, like knots, to get the muscle to stop over-firing and relax or to break up scar tissue. Don’t be afraid to ask your therapist to ease back if something is too painful or sensitive, but some discomfort during and after is to be expected in order to reduce and eliminate your chronic pain in the long term. After a few sessions, you’ll be able to distinguish the discomfort of easing muscle tension from other forms of pain and be able to think of it as a good pain, like that of tough workouts.

After Your Appointment

Immediately after, hydrate and avoid strenuous exercise for at least 24 hours. Lisa also recommends going for a light walk to let the body integrate the benefits received in your session as well as stretching, foam rolling and using the MELT Method daily to prolong the positive effects. You might continue to be sore for a day or two after the appointment as your body adjusts. You might also notice an immediate drop in and even total elimination of chronic aches and pains that later slowly return, and that is to be expected as well. One massage cannot correct months and years of imbalances, so continuing with regular massages every other week or once a month will yield the most effective and longest lasting results.

Wait about a week to decide how you liked your first massage. If you liked it, stick with the same massage therapist for your future appointments as he or she will better get to know your individual issues and therefore be better able to treat you than someone who has not seen you before. If you did not enjoy your first session or did not see any results, that’s ok! There are many many therapists out there, so try different massage specialists and facilities to find the right person for you, just like finding the right hairstylist.


Photo Credit: Nick Webb, Flickr

Photo Credit: Nick Webb, Flickr


Additional Recommendations for First-Time Massage Patients

Save Money

  • Buy session packages for a discounted rate.
  • Check with your health insurance provider to see if massage is covered as a treatment for certain conditions.
  • Purchase massages in a set with other spa services you already use, like facials or manicures/pedicures for a discounted rate
  • See if there are massage schools near you. Many programs offer free or highly discounted massages to provide their students with guided practice.
  • Look for daily deals or seasonal specials for massage facilities in your area.
  • Ask for a massage as a gift.
  • Use vacation rewards points/money on cruises or at resorts toward a massage.
  • Purchase a couples massage for you and your significant other for a discount.
  • Learn basic couples’ massage techniques to use at home in between sessions if you can only schedule professional appointments once a month or less frequently.

Extend the Benefits of Your Massage

  • Follow your post-appointment instructions: Hydrate, stretch, foam roll, don’t work out, and go for a walk if you can.
  • Stretch, foam roll and/or use the MELT Method daily. These are great habits with and without massage.
  • Use yoga to expand upon the range of motion, neurological integration and muscle function improvements gained from massage.
  • Listen to your body whether or not you get a massage. Paying attention to aches and pains, tension, recurring injuries and other nuances in your body will cue you in to when something isn’t right and out of balance. Massage will improve your ability to do this over time, so it is especially beneficial for those at risk of various health concerns.


Sources and Further Information

Integrated Bodywork, LLC – Special thanks to Lisa Greene at Integrated Bodywork for contribution to this guide

New to Massage FAQ from WebMD

10 Most Popular Types of Massage from AboutHealth

Find a Massage Therapist Tool and additional resources from the American Massage Therapist Association

Glossary of Massage and Bodywork Techniques from Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals



Have you tried massage? Have any questions that we didn’t answer? Share with us in the comments!

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