The definition of compression is “the action or state of being squeezed down or made smaller or more pressed together.” Compression is done by giving pressure, but pressure is not necessarily “making smaller” or “pressing together,” that is, giving pressure doesn’t always result in compression.
For instance, we can give pressure on the muscles along the spinal region to realign the vertebrae, but this has little to do with compression, but rather with pushing the vertebrae back into their natural place. Nonetheless, although technically not exactly the same, the terms compression and pressure are generally used interchangeably in massage therapy vocabulary.
Compression is typically used on larger areas of muscle, applying sustained, often deep pressure onto muscles (pushing them down) which is held for a certain period and then released. Usually the palms of the hands are used, but fists, fingers, elbows, forearms, feet and knees may be used also. The intensity of pressure can range from light to rather deep.
Of course, there’s also the well-known term acu-pressure, which in itself is a form of “mini-compression,” but the primary concept behind using acupressure is to unblock or open-up energy channels (for instance, TCM Meridians, Indian Nadis or Thai Sen Lines) to stimulate the free flow of Life Energy for health purposes.
In any case, common goals of using compression in massage therapy are to promote relaxation (physically and mentally), loosen up tight muscles, eliminating trigger points, flush out excess fluids, and alleviate acute pain, to name some important aims. Pressure on soft tissues increases temperature and (blood and lymph) circulation, which allows the muscles to soften and lengthen while aiding in improved nutrition, an improved immune-response, more range of movement, and pain-free movement.
Compression also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to aid in relaxation. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, several hormones are released, such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which produce feelings of calmness, contentment and happiness.
The typical body parts treated by compression techniques are the back, neck, shoulders, buttocks, abdominal area, arms, thighs, and calves.