Manual therapy or massage therapy?

I recently attended the 2023 SMTO (Scottish Massage Therapists Organisation) Annual Conference.

During the course of the organisations AGM, a proposal was put forward to change the name from Scottish Massage Therapists Organisation to the Scottish Manual Therapists Organisation.

A subtle change to the name that would leave the organisation’s acronym the same SMTO.

Scottish Massage Therapists Organisation - Scottish Manual Therapist Organisation

I believe, one of the main reasons for the name change is to, distance the organisation and it’s members from the misuse of the word Massage by the prostitution industry.

But, when we consider the name change, what are the actual differences between massage therapy and manual therapy?

What’s the difference?

Both massage therapy and manual therapy are types of hands-on bodywork. And, they are both used to ease physical discomfort and pain but that’s where the similarities end.

The main difference between the two is the goals and intentions.

The goal of massage therapy is to ease muscle and soft tissue tension. As well as providing positive benefits for general health and wellbeing, including mental health.

On the other hand, the primary goal of manual therapy is to reduce pain, improve mobility and correct dysfunction.

Now, you could say that massage therapy also looks to reduce pain, improve movement and correct dysfunction. And, you’d be correct but the methods by which they do that are, in my opinion, very different.

Massage therapy tends to take a more general approach to pain and dysfunction. It looks to have a positive effect by using a wide spread or more general treatment. Massage therapists will typically address many different muscles or regions to help improve the clients experience. This is all done whilst the client relaxes on the table and drifts away.

Manual therapy on the other hand is more precise and involved.

When attending a manual therapy session, I would expect you to receive some assessment and testing at the start of the session.

I would also expect the session to be less relaxing and more involved from the clients perspective.

You could expect lots more position changes during the session. Maybe some active or passive stretching and mobilisations, and maybe some tools being used such as cupping, scrapping and/or taping.

If the therapist is suitably qualified you might also be offered acupuncture or joint manipulations too.

Lastly, you should also expect some form of home care or after care to help improve your symptoms between sessions.

In summary: Massage therapy is more general and relaxing, manual therapy is more specific and focused.

So, which is better?

They both have their place and offer different approaches to reducing physical discomfort and dysfunction.

I would recommend massage therapy if you’re feeling generally tight, stiff and fatigued from normal day to day activities.

However, if you’re experiencing ongoing or hard to shift pain / discomfort, or you’re struggling with certain movements or reoccurring issues then manual therapy might be more appropriate.

In general, my sessions are more aligned with massage therapy. As a general rule, I ask very little of my clients during a session except to relax and chill.

However, when necessary, I do offer a more manual therapy style approach with testing, assessment, tools and after care.


If you know what type of session you want or need, great! Book yourself in for a massage or manual therapy session.

If you’re unsure, then I suggest you book in for a massage session. If need be, we can change your session to a manual therapy session after discussing your issues.


So, going back to the name change for the SMTO. I doubt it will have any significant implications for either the organisation, therapist or clients.

But let’s be clear, although the wording is often used interchangeably, massage and manual therapy are not, in my opinion, the same thing.