Thai massage, or Nuad Thai, is an ancient art and science of healthcare and therapy that is a branch of Thai traditional medicine. The worldview and theoretical knowledge of Thai massage are closely associated with Buddhism.
Nuad Thai is a manifestation of Thai traditional values, especially compassion toward those suffering and the spirit of mutual aid in the family and community. The tradition has helped strengthen community self-reliance in healthcare as well as personal bonds. With its health benefits and contribution to the well-being of individuals, families, and communities, Nuad Thai represents a priceless cultural legacy of the Thai people.
The healing art of Thai massage aims to redress irregularities and imbalances among the Four Elements, which constitute the human body according to Thai traditional medicine. Diagnosis and treatment are based on the theory of senprathansib, described in traditional Thai medical texts, especially stone inscriptions at Wat Phra Chetuphon. According to the theory, lom or the wind is carried through the body by a network of thousands of sen (energy) lines, but only ten of them are primary ones, generally known as sen sib or senprathan sib. Blocked sen lines restrict energy and blood flow and cause various symptoms and illnesses—mild or severe, acute or chronic—from pains, aches, stiff, sprains, strains, tightness, swelling, hot, cold, cramps, numbness, immobility, loss of taste sensation to nausea. Senprathan sib is a primary diagnostic tool to detect stagnant wind and blood and other abnormalities occurring to the four elements. Thai massage practitioners use a variety of techniques including pressing, circling, kneading, squeezing, pinching, stretching, pulling, and hot herbal compression to manipulate specific points along these pathways to restore normal energy (the wind) flow and blood circulation. Historical records show Thai massage was already a well-established branch of traditional medicine and officially accepted by the royal court as early as the early Ayutthaya period (1545). Massage was commonly practiced among not only Siamese rulers but their subjects as evident from the account of Simon de La Loubere, who was in Siam in 1687 and 1688 as the French envoy, and photographs from the reign of King Rama V.
But as Siam was transforming itself into a modern nation, the royal court withdrew its patronage of traditional medicine. Later government attempts to regulate traditional medicine deprived massage healers of their legal status. The social standing of Thai massage hit rock bottom during the Vietnam War as the influx of American GIs triggered a boom of massage parlors, and its reputation, to many, has since been tied to sexual services.
A project undertaken jointly by civil society organizations and government agencies concerned in 1985 has set in motion a revival of Nuad Thai, leading to the integration of Thai massage therapy into the country’s primary health care and later into its health services and Universal Health Coverage.
Massage therapy has now been used for stroke patients, children with disabilities, postpartum care, and the elderly. Thousands, including visually impaired persons, have received vocational and professional training in Thai massage. The latter group is eligible to take a licensing examination to be registered Thai massage practitioners.
Thai massage has also emerged as a core service offered by health establishments and a major component of the country’s spa industry, which have seen rapid growth domestically and abroad in recent years. Its popularity has spread to Europe, North America, Japan, and the Middle East. Foreign enthusiasts come to Thailand to learn Thai massage in increasing numbers each year.
Thai massage, or Nuad Thai, is not only part of ancient Thai health and medical wisdom but is also an embodiment of the traditional value system of Thai society. The art and science of Nuad Thai have been transmitted through generations and have become well-known all over the world. Thai massage therapy, now available in the country’s healthcare system, is an effective and inexpensive treatment for relieving pains and rehabilitation of patients with impaired mobility resulting from chronic diseases or disabilities. It is also a method of healthcare that can be easily trained and practiced for self-care and mutual help.
In recent years, Nuad Thai has been gaining popularity and reputation as an effective holistic body treatment in Thailand itself and around the world. Nuad Thai was inscription for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2019.
The significance of Nuad Thai is a culturally embedded health practice in Thai society, and its transmission has continued through generations, which is why it is still alive and relevant to today’s health challenges. The restoration and development of Thai massage during the past three decades has provided a lesson on the priceless values of ancient wisdom for the modern world.