What is a Hot Stone Massage?
Look at any spa advertisement, and you will likely see a picture of a woman with large black stones laying in a perfect line along her spine. The modality it is advertising is known as "Hot Stone Massage". It is a very unique and different form of massage that has many benefits. This unusual treatment is commonly used in advertising to show extreme luxury and trendy pampering, but it is actually a very ancient form of massage therapy that has many benefits for health and wellness beyond just a "luxury experience".
At the most basic explanation, Hot Stone Massage is a massage done with heated stones placed on certain areas of the body and also used to do the massage itself. The heated stones allow the massage to have a different effectiveness in that it provides a deeper treatment to the muscles without adding more pressure. Heat is often recommended for helping relax sore or tight areas, to stimulate healing, reduce inflammation, and many more benefits. So combining heat with massage (which also is used for many of those same issues) provides a one-two punch for helping the body heal, recover, and relax.
So how does it work? The stones themselves are usually made of basalt (hardened lava) or some other igneous stone, however many newer hot stone massages use stones made of a variety of materials including marble and even salt. Basalt stones are heated in a tank of water that can get up to 140 degrees. The stones are porous so they absorb the heated water, which warms not only the surface of the stones, but also the entire stone, right to it's core - so the stones get quite warm and the warmth can last for a while depending on the size of the stone. The stones are not all the same size and shape. Different sizes and shapes of stones are used depending on the size and location of the muscle group being worked on. The stones are used two different ways: Some are laid on the body along certain points while other stones are held in the massage therapist's hands and are used to do the massage. (A side note - despite what is shown in pictures, the stones that lay on the skin and don't move, generally should not be placed directly on the skin due to the concern of burns - those are done just for pictures. Stones placed on the skin that don't move are usually placed on a towel or with some other barrier to protect the skin. Stones that are used for the massage itself are used directly on the skin, but they are kept constantly moving which helps dissipate the heat and gives the benefits of the heat without endangering the skin.) While being used for massage, the stones are constantly swapped out as they cool and as muscle groups change so the benefits of the heat stay consistent. The stones allow the massage to have a deeper, firmer effect without the actual deep, hard pressure. So it allows for a "deeper tissue" massage without "deep pressure".
This leads to the question of why would we want to use heated stones to do massage anyway? Even though Hot Stone Massage seems like a new luxury trend, it has actually existed for thousands of years. Evidence of stones used for healing are found in traditions in ancient China, Egypt, India, Africa, Europe, as well as North and South America. Sometimes the stones would be used for more ceremonial purposes, but they have also been used to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck, and for healing purposes.
Heat itself has long been used to heal. Heat increases circulation, relaxes muscle spasms and tightness, and helps soften and break up tight tissues. Additionally, since the stones are porous, and our skin and muscles are porous, the stones heated in water turn this massage into a moist heat treatment, and moist heat, due to our bodies accepting moisture through the skin so easily, is significantly more effective for applying heat than a dry heat such as a heating pad. Moist heat allows for the heat itself to get deeper into the muscles so it uses all it's benefits on a much deeper level which makes it more effective for a longer timespan.
This type of massage is excellent for both pain and stress relief since the heat helps everything relax. It is also incredibly beneficial for other conditions such as arthritis, carpal tunnel, plantar fasciitis, and fibromyalgia. Personal side story: After I had first studied Hot Stone Massage, I had the stones set up in my practice and was using them for spot treatments as a freebie for any clients that wanted it just so I could practice. I had one client brought in who was quite elderly, and was suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. His hands were so curled in on themselves, his wife said he could barely use his hands anymore. He had been a musician, so the loss of the use of his hands gave him as much pain emotionally as he was dealing with physically. His hands were in fact so tight, I could barely move his fingers, but I squeezed one small, slightly cooled stone into the palm of his hand, and used other small stones to work on the back of his hands and fingers until they started to move a bit, then used more stones on his palm and wrist. Later that day, his wife called the office and she was crying. She said that she had brought him home and he was able to pick up a coffee mug on his own, unassisted. He was so happy to be able to use his hand just enough to pick up a mug, he had started crying and claimed it was a miracle, and asked his wife to immediately schedule him another massage so that he could try to play the piano again for her after his next appointment.
So with all these benefits, is there any reason not to get a Hot Stone Massage? There are a few contraindications such as open wounds, circulatory or cardiovascular disorders, certain cancers, blood clots, or any condition where the body shouldn't be overheated. Also, if someone is on blood thinners, they should disclose that to the therapist because of the increased chance of bruising - It's not contraindicated, just something the therapist can help avoid if they are aware of it. As with any massage, if there is a medical condition present, check with a doctor and be honest with the therapist.
Hot Stone Massage can often be paired with essential oils and other massage modalities or spa techniques. They are also popular tools for massages that focus on energy work, with the stones helping create energy resonation in various chakras. Some energy workers believe that the stones can help correct imbalances and release restrictions through their natural energy vibrations, and will often add colored gemstones to the basalt stones to help increase their energetic effectiveness.
Overall, while Hot Stone Massage seems like it is a new, trendy, luxury it has actually been around for a long time and provides many basic benefits to overall health. It takes all the benefits of a regular massage and combines it with the healing power of heat. It is an excellent healing tool for some troublesome conditions, while simultaneously being extravagant and ultra-relaxing. It can also allow someone who gets massage frequently to "mix it up" and have a different experience. So the next time you see those strange black rocks in a spa ad, know that yes, they do provide a luxurious experience, but there is more to them than just the pretty picture.