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Understanding Deep Tissue Massage: An Introduction

Recently I had a massage that left me bruised, incredibly sore, and long term injured. It’s been almost 1 year now and still I have occasional discomfort behind my left knee as a result. I consider myself to be in relatively good health so the fact that this bodywork made my body feel this way made me concerned for others looking for help with a physical body in far worse shape than mine.

Many people are unclear as to what exactly deep tissue massage means. If you were to ask 10 different therapists you’d likely get 10 different answers. The most common agreement, and I will argue this shortly, is that deep tissue is massage with lots of pressure to get in deep. Deep tissue massage is commonly thought of as painful and intense but necessary to get the desired results.

The problem with this mindset is that creating pain in a deep tissue massage session is typically going to decrease the functional results a client is looking for. Pain is a perception created within the brain to illicit a specific set of responses in the human body – typically fight or flight as a protection mechanism. Since most people are trying to decrease stress, tension, or pain – eliciting a fight or flight response should be avoided as it facilitates all three.

Deep tissue massage essentially is massage that goes beyond the superficial layers of our body: this would be the skin, superficial fascia, and the top layers of muscles. Deep tissue massage is aimed to influence the deep layers of muscles, deep investing fascia and visceral structures. All these structures do reside deeper with the body, however this does not require the technique to be aggressive or painful. Slow and gentle descent into the deeper areas of the body not viewed as dangerous and as a result does not illicit pain.

Mechanically, we as massage therapists, cannot make a muscle soften, lengthen, or release directly with our hands. The purpose of massage is to introduce touch, hopefully positive touch, to regions of the body that are experiencing distress, and create an environment for self-healing through our interaction with the nervous system. Overly aggressive and painful work does the exact opposite and instead elicits a protective response. This can be seen in session with a client holding their breath, tightening muscles, or through negative facial expressions.

The discomfort commonly associated with deep tissue massage can be mitigated by the therapist simply slowing down, using a broader surface contact area, or not going too deep if the body is not ready to receive the work. We cannot force a body to change how it holds itself – we can only interact and encourage it to do so on its own.

Most of us have been instilled with the notion, “no pain no gain.” This is not the case with most benefits in massage therapy and is typically counterproductive. Yes, there are occasional techniques that will create pain however these are very rare. The next time you are receiving deep tissue massage ask yourself if you are relaxing into the work or constantly fighting against the pressure of your therapist. Are you in the state of the “good pain” that is therapeutic or are you beyond that and as a result tightening up or holding your breath? Try having your therapist take just a little bit off the pressure, or use a broader contact surface, and you will find the massage to be more enjoyable and the results far more profound.


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