Therapeutic Massage cork with david hankey

Therapeutic Massage – A TCM Perspective

Therapeutic Massage is also part of the TCM repertoire – Anmo being a more general term and Tuina being used for more specialty techniques. Massage can also be part of the diagnostic process for acupuncturists.

Through various techniques, massage can dredge meridians and collaterals, regulate Yin and Yang, harmonize the Nutrient and Defense Systems, and tonify Qi and Blood. Massage is inseparable from the fundamental principles of TCM. Strong, forceful techniques, such as pulling, grasping, and nipping are fundamentally Yang in nature and produce purging and sedating effects, whereas soft, gentle techniques, such as stroking, rubbing, revolving, vibrating etc., are more Yin in nature and produce invigorating, tonifying effects.

In TCM Therapeutic  Massage works with meridians, collaterals, muscle groups, and tendons as well as individual points (for example, A Manual of Acupuncture by Peter Deadman shows the sinew channels for each meridian, as well as giving pathological symptoms).

Although I started out by studying various massage systems, including Shiatsu and Reflexology, I began the study of TCM because it led to a more in depth exploration of health matters. When I began to practice TCM, I relied more on acupuncture as a means to help people with health matters. However, because of expectations and competition with other disciplines, I began to include a few minutes of massage as part of certain treatments, especially those addressing physical difficulties and pain.

Treatments became more popular, and as an empirical observation, I thought more successful. As I thought about what I was doing, I came up with the following:


Acupuncture can be a fearful experience for people, especially the first time; a brief massage can be soothing and relaxing before inserting needles.
When people are very stressed, they can be in a fight or flight mode that being touched by another person can assuage, especially along the Tai Yang area, associated with the water element /endrocrine nervous systems which interface with the external world.
Observations made during massage can aid diagnosis – different muscle groups being tighter or looser than others, changes in skin texture, colour, smell, spots etc. can aid diagnosis.
Massage can assist in deciding which meridians/areas are most affected. Are there any other parts of the body affected? e.g. if hip pain – does it affect the shoulders or legs etc. Sometimes, people are not aware of secondary areas that might be involved, or even where exactly the primary area is.
Specific massage techniques, i.e. Tuina actually form an adjunct to treatments in China.
Massage moves Qi and Blood, and heats up an area by transference of kinetic energy.
The Qi of the practitioner can have a positive effect on the receiver. This is also true of acupuncture by needle manipulation, but in massage the exposure time is longer, i.e. 20 –30 minutes, then comes the acupuncture as the second course.
Massaging a meridian or point for a few minutes desensitizes the area leading to a pain free needle insertion, and more sensation of Da Qi.
Therapeutic Massage helps with point location and helps facilitate knowledge of areas between points. As an exercise, with the help of a friend, and using massage oil to reduce friction, trace the pathways of all the meridians in a particular area, e.g. shoulder. Then locate the points by palpating closely until you can feel and visualize all tendons, blood vessels, peaks and valleys of muscles etc. Then check with A Manual of Acupuncture.

The theory of TCM is more in depth, complex and superior to a lot of massage systems. This can be used to the advantage of the acupuncturist while doing even the most casual of massage.
Tongue, pulse, asking/dialogue will form the basis of diagnosis. Observing tension, resistance, discolouration, flaccidity etc. can help.
With TCM diagnosis, the practitioner can focus on the specific channels/points/6 Yin Yang areas that are affected.
Using TCM theory, the practitioner can tonify an area/meridian by gentle technique/following the ‘flow’ of a meridian, or sedate an area/meridian by more vigorous movement/going against the ‘flow’ of the meridian.
Using TCM theory, diagnosis, treatment principles etc., it can be possible to perform a treatment for patients who are afraid of needles (this will take longer though as each point will take longer to stimulate). Of course there may be modalities of treatment within TCM that may be better suited in this case, e.g. herbal medicine.
This, so far, is the easy part. To develop the sensitivity necessary to “develop fingers with brain cells, capable of feeling, thinking and seeing”, takes a long time. Good places to start are Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Aikido, which are concerned with posture, touch, sensitivity, no force, calming the Mind, Qi cultivation and projection.

Therapeutic Massage is an integral part of TCM. Many practitioners in China are multi-disciplined. Professor Cheng Man Ching, known for his proficiency in Tai Chi, was regarded as a Master of Five Excellences – Tai Chi, medicine, painting, calligraphy, and poetry. These could just as well be any five disciplines. There is still time to start.

Anyone remember the TV series Kung Fu? Master Kan was leading the young student Kwai Chang Caine across the training area while explaining all the different disciplines the monks were engaged in and said that it “takes a lifetime to develop each one of these disciplines.”

“Which one do you practice?” asked the student.

“Them all,” replied the master.

Recommended book on Chinese massage, Tai Chi and Qi Gong: The Chinese Way to Health by Dr. Stephen Gascoigne.

David Hankey

Hi, I’m David Hankey and I have been studying and practicing oriental health systems for more than 30 years.