Effleurage is one of the main techniques used in massage therapy. The term effleurage is derived from the French word for “touch” or “contact.” Also referred to as gliding strokes, effleurage techniques stroke along the length of a limb. It is generally the first and last stroke used in massage and is used to introduce touch, warm the tissues for deeper work, and to soothe and relax an area that has just been massaged.
Effleurage techniques can use:
- no pressure (ethereal or aura strokes)
- superficial to light pressure (feathering or nerve-stroking)
- light to moderate pressure (superficial effleurage)
- deep pressure (deep effleurage).
In a typical Swedish massage, the massage therapist may use superficial effleurage to apply oil or lotion, and then gradually increase the intensity to warm the tissues before transitioning to petrissage (kneading) or other deeper techniques.
After an area has been massaged, the therapist often uses feathering effleurage to lightly stroke along the area, to “say goodbye” before transitioning to the next area. Ethereal or aura strokes are sometimes used at the end of a whole-body massage to ease the transition from being massaged to being back in the “real world.”
Effleurage is used in many massage styles. Swedish massage, as stated above, uses effleurage both as a beginning and ending stroke. In between, techniques such as petrissage (kneading), compression and tapotement (percussion) are used to relax or stimulate the muscles and nerves.
How Effleurage is Performed
Massage therapists perform effleurage massage using fingertips, the front of the fingers, hands, forearms or even thumbs or elbows, depending on the desired pressure and effect. The fingertips or the backs of the fingers may be used for light “feathering” or “nerve strokes.” These strokes are intended to soothe or calm the nerves, and are often used at the beginning or end of a segment of massage during Swedish massages.
The full hand can be used for a more solid contact. The pressure can be light and soothing, working the superficial skin and lymph or deeper, to apply pressure to the long muscles of the body. For large, broad muscles, the forearm can be used to do effleurage over the entire muscle width.
To access deep adhesions in a long muscle, the thumbs may be used to “strip” the muscles along with a more precise area. In most cases, effleurage is done by starting at the most distal (furthest away) part of the area being massaged and then stroking upward toward the heart. Swedish massage theory recommends that all strokes be done toward the heart to aid in circulation of blood and lymph.
Effleurage strokes are intended to be smooth and fluid, and they should never start or end abruptly. For repeated movements, the therapist made use light feather strokes when returning from the proximal (closest) part to the distal part to begin another stroke. Therapists will make their hands as relaxed as possible when performing effleurage in order to make full contact with the skin and move smoothly along the area being worked.
Both to maximize the comfort of the client and to protect the therapist’s body from damage, therapists performing effleurage massage techniques are taught to use their legs to direct their movements, by shifting their weight and moving along the table as they move along the area being massaged, rather than using just the arms or shoulders to move the hands along the area.
This provides a more even pressure to the client and reduces the potential for injury to the therapist. Because a therapist may repeat this move many times a day, it is important for her health to use good body mechanics to avoid repetitive strain injuries.
In addition, paying attention to keeping the wrists straight and using a second hand to support the working hand can help prevent wrist and hand injuries when working deeper. Ensuring that the massage table is at a height where the therapist doesn’t have to bend or reach excessively will improve the result for the client as well as aid the therapist in avoiding back and shoulder injuries.
Physiological Benefits of Effleurage
Effleurage can help with blood and lymph circulation. Studies have demonstrated that even gentle massage will dilate the superficial blood vessels and increase the rate of blood flow. Effleurage techniques are sometimes used to help improve circulation in people who are immobile.
In addition to providing increased local circulation, firmer effleurage strokes directed toward the heart can aid in venous blood flow. Studies have also demonstrated that lymph flow can be stimulated by effleurage techniques. Therefore, effleurage is one of the techniques that can be used to help reduce swelling and edema in injured areas.
Deeper effleurage techniques are often used to help with muscle rehabilitation associated with injuries or fatigue. Studies have demonstrated that self-massage using foam rollers can help recovery from neuromuscular fatigue resulting from exercise.
Applications of Effleurage Massage Technique
- In addition to its use in Swedish Massage, effleurage is frequently used for very light massage on sensitive populations such as the elderly, infants, and cancer patients. It has been shown to provide benefits in reduction of pain and an increased sense of well being.
- Deeper effleurage techniques are often used in Sports Massage applications. A very deep, long stroke using the thumbs is sometimes called muscle stripping. Sports massage therapists may use muscle stripping to work deeply into long muscles that have adhesions, using the pressure and movement to break up the adhesions and separate fibers.
- Other sports massage applications of effleurage would be in the use of foam rollers by athletes before and after workouts. Foam rollers can help athletes work out adhesions as well as increase blood flow into large muscles and aid in recovery from exercise.
- Estheticians use effleurage massage during facials to tone skin and help their clients relax. The gentle strokes are used to apply and remove products, massage the skin and gently stimulate the nervous system. Effleurage strokes used in facial massage are often small circular strokes.
- Effleurage doesn’t need to be done on the skin. Hairdressers use effleurage when they apply shampoos and conditioners to the hair. They may also use effleurage techniques such as long smooth strokes on the scalp during a scalp massage.
When Effleurage Massage Isn’t Advised
Very light effleurage is safe for most people. However, any message is contraindicated (not advised) if there are open wounds in the area to be massaged if the client has a contagious disease or a skin condition such as inflamed acne or sunburn.
Therapists and clients should always request the advice of a medical professional if there is any question of whether the client has a condition that would make massage inadvisable.
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- Fleckenstein, Johannes; Wilke, Jan; Vogt, Lutz; and Banzer, Winifred. Preventive and regenerative foam rolling are equally effective in reducing fatigue-related impairments of muscle function following exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2017; 16, 474-479.