Ancient Egyptian artwork has been found in the tomb of a physician which depicts people getting their hands and feet rubbed. Presumably the man doing the rubbing was the doctor, and he was giving them a treatment for medical purposes. The very first compilation of Chinese medical knowledge, the Huangdi Neijing, also highlights the usefulness of the treatment. Sanskrit evidence shows the treatment occurring long before recorded history in India.
Greek and Roman medical leaders also believed that massage was a very useful treatment. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, wrote that “the physician must be experienced in many things, but certainly in rubbing” in about 460 BC.
The famed Roman medical thinker and practitioner Galen, who was doctor to a number of Emperors, advocated rubbing down muscles as a treatment based on what he learned as a trainee physician at the gladiatorial schools in Rome. Both gladiators and legionaries seemed to have used rubbing techniques to loosen their muscles and both prepare for and recover from fights.
Greco-Roman traditions, including the medical practice of “rubbing” survived in the Arabic world to be revived in Europe during the Enlightenment.
The technique was revived by Swede Pehr Henrik Ling in 1813 at the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute in Stockholm. He used it to help his trainees to prepare for and recover from events, as well as increase their flexibility. Today Swedish massage is the most common form in the Western World.
In the East
The first physician known to have used massage in China was Bian Que, in 700 BC. In about 500 BC Shivago Komarpaj founded the Thai tradition of the practice. He was supposedly the doctor of Buddha himself, and combined elements of both Indian and Chinese medicine to create the distinctive Thai massage.
In 300 BC the first Ayurvedic medical treatise was written in India, documenting the Indian practices of both massage and yoga as medical procedures and spiritual rituals.
By 581 AD the Chinese Office of Imperial Physicians had a massage department, and by 1150 the practice was well established as far away as Cambodia, where it was even used to induce abortions. Since ancient times in China, India and Thailand practises have not much changed.