What is the difference between a therapeutic and a clinical massage?
I've been asked this question a number of times (mostly before a massage begins), and from the massage therapist's perspective I often joke "You might not like me as much after a ‘clinical' massage"
As you might have guessed, the difference is in the intended outcome of the massage. Therapeutic massage often applies to ‘spa' treatments and they can be quite luxurious with hot stones, essential oils, salt scrubs, and classical music. Clinical massage is focused on relief from an injury, disease or medical condition and the treatments tend to be directed to a defined affected area of the body and the treatments can be more intensive.
Are you a patient or a client?
This is a good place to start for the differences between a spa massage and a medical massage. Because a clinical massage is focused on addressing a medical need, it requires a different sort of approach. For example, in the case of a clinical massage, your physician might have referred you and will often direct your therapist with specific requests for your treatment. In addition, your insurance company may be covering all or part of your visit, so they have an expectation that your visit is focused on resolving a specific ailment or condition and would not cover the services found in a spa environment. In contrast, spa massage is frequently expected to be a relaxing overall experience with the goal of de-stressing and unwinding. That doesn't mean that a clinical treatment won't be a relaxing experience, but you should understand that it's not the focus of your treatment.
Different strokes, for different folks.
While an aggressive spa massage might feel similar to clinical massage in some ways, the types of techniques used will often differ because of the purpose of the visit. During a spa visit, you typically enjoy a Swedish Massage that's often a more basic routine provided for your full-body relaxation. However, during a clinical massage, a professional may use a broader set of modalities, such as Trigger Point Therapy or Myofascial Release, as a means to assist muscle recovery. If you're recovering from an injury, these techniques can be uncomfortable and downright painful. Like physical therapy and vaccinations, this discomfort can be unavoidable but serves the greater purpose of your recovery and healing.
Addressing Your Specific Medical Need
On the topic of techniques, another factor where the two types of massage differ is how your session is planned based on your individual needs. Consider how a longtime runner might seek out a medical massage to deal with a difficult injury during their year. At the same time, someone who's been in a car accident may have completely different needs due to whiplash. Because the circumstances are very different, a skilled massage therapist will utilize different techniques and therapies to address different kind of injuries. Although a typical spa therapist has been trained in the art of massage, there are dozens of therapies and techniques that can be employed. Use of heat, cold, stretching, vibration, and other massage implements are part of the clinical therapist's toolbox to relieve pain and restore muscular function.
Massage, stretch, exercise, repeat.
Finally, you will also find a difference in the suggested frequency of your massage visits. Because there is a clinical plan designed for your medical massage treatment, you'll have specific goals for your recovery that can involve measuring your range of mobility and, strength. These will often include a series of timed visits where you are given time to heal between visits versus a sporadic spa visit. A clinical massage factors into a larger plan to improve specific medical challenges you may be facing.