It is a common misconception that a “deep tissue” is just a massage done with firm pressure. Many also believe that deep tissue is not beneficial unless it’s painful and produces post-massage soreness. However the “No pain, No gain” mentality doesn’t translate into the world of massage therapy. There’s rarely justification for an extremely painful massage but it’s also hard for a client to understand and communicate the line between an uncomfortable sensation that might be a necessary part of therapy and an ugly pain that’s borderline abusive.
When you go in for a deep tissue massage and it feels more like you are getting beat up and leaves you sore for days, that is actually more like a deep pressure massage than an actual deep tissue. Deep pressure is just what it sounds like, it is any type of massage technique that is performed with more or deeper pressure. Deep pressure in targeted areas can be beneficial for loosening recently built up tension from a stressful week or sleeping in a funny position. Clients should be able to relax and shouldn’t feel pain unless there is an issue present- such as a trigger point, knot or spasm. The problem with deep pressure occurs when clients try to tolerate more than their body can handle, thinking that pain must be endured while their muscles are forcefully made to relax. Muscles don’t respond well to this kind of massage. When you are in pain or expecting pain, it is natural for the muscles to tense in order to brace against trauma. So if you are gritting your teeth and having trouble breathing or relaxing you are probably subconsciously fighting off your therapist because the work is actually too heavy. This negative reaction leads to less productive bodywork and is more likely to leave you feeling pain and soreness.
Deep tissue work focuses on the manipulation of deeper layers of muscles to release knots and chronic muscle tension. But that doesn’t mean the therapist has to be heavy handed or dig in with their elbow to get there. All it means is that the therapist has to relax the outer muscles before being able to reach the deeper ones. It is especially helpful for chronically tense and contracted areas such as stiff necks, low back tightness, and sore shoulders. Therapies such as myofascial release and hot stone therapy help provide deep work that gradually softens tissues, coaxing them to relax, so it does not to create as much distress. The best way to do this is to work slowly. Instead of trying to force my way into someone’s tissue, I work with the body and let the tissue dictate how much pressure I begin with.
It’s really tough to measure the Goldilocks amount of pressure as a therapist since every client is different, but I generally push until the muscle pushes back then slightly soften to your tolerance. Most everyone needs more pressure in some areas and less in others. Your therapist should manipulate your muscles and adjust the pressure until it’s perfect for you. Not everything that hurts is therapeutic, but not every therapeutic procedure is painless. Discomfort experienced should never be above a 7 on a pain scale of 1-10 (1= able to feel the pressure, 10= serious pain). Always communicate your goals and preferences with your therapist. It is important to let us know how the pressure and intensity of the work is feeling to your body so that it may be adapted to suit you. We learn how to better help and assist you through muscular and verbal feedback.