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Medical Massage vs. Spa Massage: What's the Difference?

Updated: Jan 8

There's a common misconception that all massages are the same; they're for relaxation and stress relief, right? Yes, but there are also many other reasons why someone might seek massage therapy, as well as a variety of lesser-known benefits. You might think you can only get a massage at a spa, but they can also be administered in a clinical setting for pain relief and more, hence the term "medical massage."

Massage therapist in a massage session with client

What is Medical Massage?

Massage therapy is widely known as a relaxation and stress-relieving technique, but it's much more than that when utilized as a healing tool. Medical massage is an outcome-based practice that aims to relieve pain from various medical conditions, injuries, and mental stressors.

What's the Difference Between a Medical Massage & a Spa Massage?

Oftentimes viewed as a special "treat" or luxury, spa massages are most often sought out when clients are looking to be pampered. A client seeking a spa massage in most cases is searching for generalized relaxation and stress relief with no clear end goal in mind. The intent of a medical massage tends to be far more purpose-driven, with the client seeking targeted and specific pain relief or a holistic treatment plan for an injury or a condition.


The primary goal of a medical massage is to improve an injury or dysfunction in the body through manual therapies. Many people might receive a referral from their doctor or simply seek out massage therapy to decrease pain, whether that be from a chronic condition, injury, or mental stressor. Massage therapists in the clinical setting will create custom treatment plans for each client depending on that person's needs and what improvements they hope to achieve with each session. In most cases multiple or regular sessions are preferred; incorporating additional therapy approaches such as physical therapy may also be appropriate.

Education & Training

All massage therapists complete specialized training in massage techniques, anatomy, ethics, and more. When working in a clinical setting, massage therapists take additional courses and training certifications that provide a more in-depth understanding of the body's healing process and which massage techniques are best suited to specific conditions. While most entry-level massage certifications begin at 500 hours of training, a medical massage therapist will often exceed 1,000 hours of hands-on training and continue adding to that throughout their career.

Massage Modalities

The specialized techniques that massage therapists use are referred to as modalities. These unique approaches to manual therapy require a higher level of training for the massage therapist to effectively master the technique and understand when best to apply it. Many of these modalities involve specific protocols and sequences that the massage therapist learns to apply and also modify when needed. Here are a few examples of massage types used to treat chronic pain and conditions:

  • Deep-Tissue Massage

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage

  • Sports Massage

  • Injury Massage

  • Craniosacral Therapy

Medical Massage Benefits

Proponents of massage therapy and researchers alike agree that there are many benefits to getting regular massages for problem areas, chronic pain, and mental health, including:

  • Decreased Inflammation

  • Better sleep

  • Increased mobility

  • Less chronic pain

  • Drug-free alternative to pain control

  • Fewer tension headaches

  • Lowered anxiety and stress

  • Improved posture

  • Increased immune system function

In the Journal of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, a meta-analysis was conducted to assess massage therapy and its impact on pain management and quality of life. The analysis studied 67 articles spanning from 1999-2013 and investigated the use of massage therapy on chronic pain, musculoskeletal pain, headache, fibromyalgia, spinal cord pain, and more. The results indicate that massage therapy is beneficial in managing pain, mood, anxiety, sleep, and health-related quality of life in the participants.

Conditions Massage Therapy Can Address

Medical massages will address your pain points and problem areas in order to decrease symptoms. Here are a few conditions that you can receive a medical massage for:

  • Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Pain

  • Headaches & Migraines

  • Chronic Anxiety & Stress

  • Lower Back Pain

  • Arthritis of the Knees, Hips, and Shoulders

  • Post-Surgical Swelling & Pain

  • Scar Tissue & Adhesions

  • High Blood Pressure

Interested in Massage Therapy?

Resolve Wellness is not a spa; we are a medical massage therapy and wellness center for all of your holistic healing needs. Whether you are dealing with chronic pain, an acute injury, or mental stressors, we are here to restore your body to optimal condition. Our massage therapists create custom treatment plans based on your body's needs to help you thrive, not just survive, in today's busy world.


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Ariela Liberman is a Marketing Associate and a staff writer for Resolve Wellness, with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a Southern California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.

Reviewed by: Erynne Hill, MS, ATC, HHP, BFRC, a Nationally Certified Athletic Trainer and Massage Therapist who has been a part of the healthcare field since 2002. She is the Director of Resolve Wellness, specializing in manual lymphatic drainage and prenatal massage. Erynne has extensive knowledge of both massage and physiology, even receiving her Master's degree in Exercise Physiology from San Diego State University.


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