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Sports Massage vs. Soft Tissue Therapy

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

I’m often asked what the difference is between sports massage and soft tissue treatment. It’s a fair question and one which doesn’t have a proper answer, as there is no official definition of either….

Sports massage is traditionally, maybe notoriously, known as being an intensely deep, sometimes painful form of massage. In my clinic, and this may well differ to other clinics you visit, a sports massage is a treatment that is provided during training, or pre or post a sporting event to either prepare the body or to help it recover….and it should not be excruciating! The myth that sports massage needs to hurt in order to get results is neither true or helpful. The truth is, massage doesn’t have to hurt to be effective. A massage should be aimed at easing discomfort, (not adding to it) and helping the tissues to repair, (not causing further damage).

With regards to soft tissue therapy (STT), this is definitely a less understood & more generic term than sports massage. Ordinarily, STT incorporates assessment of any injury or condition that affects the muscles, tendons and other soft tissues of the body. Following assessment, treatment specific to the issue is provided, aimed at reducing any painful symptoms and encouraging tissue repair/recovery. Where appropriate, it also includes provision of exercises aimed at resolving the cause of the injury or, in the case of long-term chronic conditions, managing that issue. STT is ‘more than just massage’. It is a whole person approach and considers occupation, lifestyle and other factors that may be impacting on injury, perception of pain and recovery.

Whilst Sports Massage was once the descriptor for many forms of treatment, not just sports related, many of the training providers and professional membership bodies have changed their name or course titles to reflect the term & practice of STT. The Sports Massage Association (SMA) is now the ‘Association for Soft Tissue Therapists’ and the Institute for Sport & Remedial Massage (ISRM), is the 'Institute for Soft Tissue Therapists'.

You may be aware that the practice of massage therapy in the UK is neither licensed or regulated. Massage therapists can give themselves whatever title they like; and there are enormous differences in the training courses offered. For example, one therapist can do a weekend course in massage (or even online!) and other courses take a year or more. Yet all can say they have been trained in massage and for the client there is no obvious way to distinguish one from the other.

If you want to check the credentials of a massage therapist, its worth finding out if they are a member of a professional body. Both of the bodies mentioned above will only accept applications from therapists that have a Level 4 qualification or above and both require a minimum number of hours of Continual Professional Development per year, ensuring that the therapist remains up to date, relevant and following the latest evidence based understanding related to their practice. I hold a Level 5 Professional Diploma in Soft Tissue Therapy and am a member of both the ISRM & SMA.

That's not to say that there aren't some amazing massage therapists who are not members of a professional body or who hold a qualification lower than Level 4 and are incredibly skilled. All therapists, even those with exactly the same qualification, will be offering different services, skills and experience and ultimately, you need to be able to trust in your therapist, benefit from the treatment offered and have a rapport with them that makes you feel comfortable.

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