I want to take a moment to talk about deep tissue massage.
The most popular beliefs about deep tissue are that “deep” means a higher force of pressure, and that it is intense and with pain involved (the idea of no pain, no gain).
The therapeutic purpose of a deep tissue massage is to access deep layers of muscle tissue. Depth is found by skill, communication, attentiveness toward an individual’s unique anatomical nuances, and intentional focus or precision. Accessing deeper tissue is different than using hard force. With a skilled therapist, a deep tissue massage will feel
•respectful of your body responses to massage techniques
•therapeutic in the true sense
Sometimes, true deep tissue work is subtle. It feels different than hard pressure.
It is easier to find a massage therapist who offers deep tissue, but actually just inflicts pain through intense or near aggressive force and a default pressure (hopefully, as massage therapy grows as a recognized form of healthcare and wellness and educational standards are improved, this will change).
These massages sometimes leave you either feeling achy and sore right away, or feeling really good immediately afterwards until unpleasant achiness/soreness later sets in. From my own experience receiving massages and from conversations I have had with clients, the therapists sometimes have an “I know best” vibe towards your body, which shifts the power differential more in the favor of the therapists - making it feel awkward or uncomfortable to request for a different pressure, technique, or body focus.
For those who have experienced trauma, this feeling of being without autonomy or having a voice for how their body is being approached can be unsafe. And I believe we all carry some variance of trauma in our bodies, but that is a whole topic in itself).
Often, those who seek deep tissue massage experience body pain (sometimes chronic), or they have a specific physical focus. Receiving cringe-worthy, intense massages while you are already in pain can not only keep you in that pain, but can increase your sensitivity to pain:
The nervous system registers signals, then processes that information to perceive pain. A nervous system that is already perceiving pain is hypervigilant of other signals, like those that would come from bumping into a counter or receiving touch. A painful deep tissue massage may be like an attack on the nervous system and can amplify the perception of pain. It is the opposite of safety on the nervous system, the physical tissues of the body, and the mental-emotional experience.
There is a paradox, though. There is sometimes that “sweet” pain that is experienced during a massage, that comes from within and is not inflicted by the therapist. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s not the alarming kind of pain where you want to squirm.
It’s like a warm, sweet wave, and it comes and breaks like a wave. It’s a pleasurably, sweet, deeper sensation.
This type of pain appears to not be as present in scientific literature. It’s something I think about often as a massage therapist, and something I experience when I receive a massage. To me, as both therapist and a client, this pain is 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵. It 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘮𝘴 good. I can only keep trying to understand it better through communicating with my clients and checking in on their felt sensing to gauge how I need to adapt and alter my approach.
To circle back to deep tissue, I would suggest this:
-Ask yourself if you feel like your body's threshold for sensation is being respected during massages.
-Consider what your goals really are. Are you looking for informed access to deeper layers of your muscle tissue, or to feel intense pain? If you do want to that intense pain experience, I think it's a good idea to reflect on why that is. Talk to your massage therapist about it. They should keep the conversation body-centered.
-Ask your massage therapist questions.
Thank you for reading, and do reach out if you have questions.