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How to Massage Another Person's Back

Updated on December 12, 2016
ESPeck1919 profile image

Emilie Peck is a freelance writer. She is also a student of alternative medicine, including massage therapy, herbalism and aromatherapy.

You can give a good massage wherever you go, whether it's camping like these young ladies or at home.
You can give a good massage wherever you go, whether it's camping like these young ladies or at home. | Source

One of the best gifts you can give another person is a massage. Most people love having their back worked on, and they may even fall asleep while you’re rubbing the tension away.

Usually, the person you’re working on will be fully clothed and sitting in front of you.

How to Start a Massage

Before you start to work on those tough knots, you need to get a feel for the trouble spots in the person’s back, and they need to get used to your touch.

When I work on a friend or family member, I start out by pressing my palms methodically down their back, on either side of their spine. I find it easier to walk my hands down their back, altering the pressure between left and right. However, some find it easier to apply pressure to both sides at the same time and work their way down like that.

This technique is also great for warming the muscles along the shoulders, too. When working on the upper edge of the traps, apply pressure with your forearms. Using your palms works well for the muscle covering the shoulder blades and on either side of the spine, too.

Never put pressure on bones, like the spine or ridge of the shoulder blades. When that happens, it causes pain without the benefit of relaxing muscles.

Once you’ve worked the entirety of the back a few times, you should both be ready for more intense work.

A great illustration of the muscles in the back. A is the trapezius. B and C are Teres Major and Minor, which are responsible for lifting and bringing the arms down. D is the Latissimus Dorsi, which twists the body and bends it side to side.
A great illustration of the muscles in the back. A is the trapezius. B and C are Teres Major and Minor, which are responsible for lifting and bringing the arms down. D is the Latissimus Dorsi, which twists the body and bends it side to side. | Source

Relieve the Stiff Neck

The order in which you work the parts of the back doesn’t really matter, so long as both sides are worked evenly and the person feels balanced afterwards. Some people like working on the upper back and shoulders, then the lower back, and finishing with the neck.

There’s really no “best” way to do all massages, though. Generally, it’s best to concentrate on problem areas to relieve whatever pain they may be in. However, in the case of simple relaxation massages, I prefer the top-to-bottom approach.

Since relatively small muscles are responsible for holding the entire weight of the head, the neck can get pretty sore. Those who work on computers, knit, sew, crochet, or do anything that requires the head to be bowed for extended periods of time benefit greatly from this approach.

As you’re working, the individual should relax their neck. They can either rest their forehead on their folded arms, or you can hold their head with one hand, and knead with the other.

Take care not to be too rough in this area, since nerves are closer to the surface than in the rest of the back.

A particularly nice spot to work on is the base of the skull, where the muscles connect to bone.

One great method is to rub small circles along lower ridge where the head meets the neck with your fingers or thumbs. By easing tension out of the tendons, you’re relaxing the entire muscle.

This is also a great way to get rid of headaches.

Work on Upper Back Pains

The shoulders and upper back are responsible for the majority of a person’s upper body strength.

Under the larger muscles which support the arms lie smaller muscles which assist with breathing. When someone has a pulled or strained muscle anywhere in their upper back or ribs, something as simple as taking a deep breath can be painful.

Because the upper back does so much work, there’s always a lot to do in the area. People who do manual labor, climbing or carry children around will appreciate work on this part of the back the most.

It’s easiest to knead the muscle running from the neck to the ends of the shoulders, which is the topmost ridge of the trapezius. When you shrug, this is the muscle that does all the work.

Although the area may be the easiest to get at, take care not to over work it. Be sure to communicate with the person you’re working on, as it is possible to prompt headaches or nausea when massaging there.

I experienced that personally when I was in massage school. I had to ask the person working on me to stop because the feeling was so intense. The sensation stopped as soon as they moved on to a different area, but I still ended up with a bit of a headache by the end of the day.

When you stumble across big knots in the upper back, don’t try to get them out with only your fingers. For one thing, you won’t be able to get deep enough pressure to take care of the problem, and for another, you run the risk of hurting yourself.

Instead, start by rubbing the area in a circular motion with the heel of your hand and leaning your weight into their back. If this doesn’t do the trick, do the same thing with your knuckles, taking care to keep your wrist straight. If you still need to add pressure, move on to using your forearms. If the knot still doesn’t loosen, and they can tolerate the pressure, use your elbow.

When using your elbow, always start with your arm bent at about a 45-degree angle. As you bend your arm, you exert more force on the person’s back. Most knots break up within a minute or two of being worked on.

Once you feel the tension melt away, do a little lighter kneading or mild rubbing to encourage better circulation and minimize later soreness.

S2 is the area in which many walking muscles connect to the back of the pelvic cradle. The iliac crest is the other easily accessible spot where many muscles connect.
S2 is the area in which many walking muscles connect to the back of the pelvic cradle. The iliac crest is the other easily accessible spot where many muscles connect. | Source

Ease a Sore Lower Back

As you’re working your way down the back, you might come across some unexpectedly ticklish spots. The ribs are classic spots, but I’ve also massaged some people with ticklish spots right in the middle of the back.

The tickle sensation is actually a form of pain which indicates muscle tension. Often, applying more pressure will bypass the problem. If that doesn’t do the trick, or the person requests you to, just move on to the next area. You can always try again later.

The best place to work in the lower back area is along the hips. Runners, walkers and people who are on their feet for a good portion of the day often carry a lot of tension there. This is because there are a lot of muscle connections right along the back ridge of the pelvis.

As you work your way down the spine, just after the lower curve, you should be able to feel the bones of the pelvic cradle. When you move your fingers away from the spine, you should feel two protrusions.

Massage just under these round knobs with fingertips or knuckles to address the tension brought on by standing for long periods of time. You can do the same thing with the connections along the upper ridge, as well.

Again, avoid putting pressure directly on the bone.

How to End a Massage

Once you’ve finished the deep work, you can again use the palm compressions you used before. Then, do some sort of percussion, like quickly striking the upper back with loose fists, or the edge of your hands.

Never do this percussion over the kidney area. It’s best to do this on the upper back, since it stimulates those muscles and can help break up any blockages in the lungs. Don’t be worried if the person you’re working on coughs a bit from this.

The final step in the massage is to lightly sweep your hands over the back and shoulders a few times to signal you’re done.

Wellness Tips

Although giving a great massage is fulfilling and will give you an all-around great feeling, you still need to take care of yourself. Here are a few ways to make sure you can keep on giving those massages without burning out.

  • Body Mechanics
    As you’re working, pay attention to the position of your body and how you’re using it. Instead of only using the strength in your fingers and arms, lean into the person with your body weight, and use knuckles, forearms and elbows whenever you’re applying deep pressure.
  • Water
    Remember, water’s just as important for you as it is the one you’re working on. Giving a massage can be a work out, and you need to stay hydrated.
  • Inflammation
    Once you finish the massage, run your hands and forearms under cold water. This will get rid of any inflammation caused by the stress put on them.

There are many other techniques you can use, and don’t be afraid to research them. Often, however, simple is the best way to go. Another perk to using simple techniques is that they’re easy to teach to others around you, so you can be on the receiving end of massages, too!

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    • ESPeck1919 profile image
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      ESPeck1919 3 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Thank you!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Great article. Interesting educational videos.

    • ESPeck1919 profile image
      Author

      ESPeck1919 4 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Very interesting! I may look it up sometime. Thanks!

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      The style is called Dan Zan Ryu Jiu Jitsu. It's founder was Okasaki, he was famous for his style of massage, I believe he treated a President, Roosevelt if I remember correctly. He started his schools in Hawaii.The idea is that you learn to defend yourself, which involves injury, but you learn the other side which is healing. I did not take that style for long, I've trained in other styles much longer, but I did do Dan Zan Ryu for awhile. But the style is related to Kenpo, which I did for many years.The Dan Zan Ryu schools are called Kodenkan. They are non-profit organizations whose instructors are dedicated to teaching, not money. It's a good style and the massage is very good too.

    • ESPeck1919 profile image
      Author

      ESPeck1919 4 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Thanks, Nate!

      Although it's not for me as career, I'm glad to have had schooling for it.

      Do you remember the style of martial art that gave you some massage training? Shiatsu, Chi Gung and Tai Chi Chuan all have pretty powerful similarities, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if massage was a part of some Chinese martial arts outside of Tai Chi.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      Good details on anatomy, technique, safety and types of physical problems. Though I have minimal training in it, I've done a little massage; one style of martial art I took taught massage as part of the training; it was similar to what you describe here. And I've had a few massages. They are great relief from stress, pain and soreness. Good info, thanks for sharing.