The truth behind the deep tissue massage myth

Ask your therapist if deep tissue massages are right for you before pursuing. (Photo courtesy of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals)

Ask your therapist if deep tissue massages are right for you before pursuing. (Photo courtesy of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals)

Most people believe deep tissue massages are supposed to be painful in order to be beneficial. But the saying, "No pain, no gain", does not always apply to massages. In fact, many people fall into a deeper state of relaxation when they receive a deep tissue massage.

So, what is a deep tissue massage? A deep tissue massage involves the manipulation of the deeper layers of muscle and soft tissues in the body. It requires the massage therapist to melt into the tissue before reaching deeper layers by warming up the muscles on top.

Reaching the deep layers of muscle and soft tissue may not always be accomplished in the first session. Depending on the situation, a session may be modified to keep the client comfortable, so they do not subconsciously resist the work.

Resistance is natural

Our muscles have a natural reflex to resist pain. When a muscle thinks it is about to be injured, this reflex is triggered. When too much pressure is applied during a massage, the muscle or group of muscles will naturally resist force by tightening further. This is the opposite effect of what a massage is all about. Effective massages relax and release areas of tension.

Most people will naturally try to avoid painful situations. For instance, not many people look forward to going to the dentist because they associate pain with the dentist. Receiving a massage should not be one of those instances. Everyone has a different level of comfort and tolerance for pain. Everyone can perceive pain on a different level depending on their tolerance.

When the body is experiencing pain, the body reacts with tension. During a deep tissue massage, discomfort is normal and will be felt if there are inconsistencies within the tissues. Discomfort is described as a "good hurt", the kind that feels good at the same time. On the other hand, pain can be described as being uncomfortable and not tolerated well by the body.

Multiple techniques

There are many techniques or modalities that fall under the category of deep tissue work. Neuromuscular therapy (NMT) and myofascial release are just two that can be described as advanced deep tissue techniques. NMT focuses on creating a balance between the central nervous system (comprised of the brain, spine, and nerves) and the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints of the body through specific methods.

Myofascial release works on stretching and lengthening the connective tissue coverings called fascia that surround every part of our internal structure, including our bones, muscles, and organs. Tight fascia can cause pain and restrict joint mobility.

There are times when deep pressure is necessary and can be painful, but this is in the case of scar tissue. Scar tissue or adhesions are thick areas of bound connective tissue created during the healing process from an injury or some form of surgery. Scar tissue work requires deep pressure in order to break up the dense nature of this tissue.

Client comfort is key

However, massage therapists should work within the client’s comfort level and pain tolerance at all times. If a person cannot handle a high amount of pressure, it may take several more treatments to achieve the same results as someone with a higher threshold for pain. Results will occur, but at a slower rate.

Not everyone should receive a deep tissue massage. Some people simply enjoy the sensation of deeper pressure to their muscles and others prefer a more gentle touch. Someone who has never experienced a massage before may not want to request a deep tissue massage. It is the responsibility of the massage therapist to determine if a deep tissue massage is necessary by way of a thorough health history and evaluation. A massage is only effective when the person on the table is comfortable and relaxed.

Liz Florine is a licensed massage therapist and medical massage practitioner. Her private practice, A Touch Above Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, is located in Barrington, Illinois.

As of August 30, 2012, this service provider was highly rated on Angie’s List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check AngiesList.com for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.


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