Debunking Deep Tissue Massage

I spend a lot of time thinking about massage. I mean, a lot of time. Massage isn’t just my profession, it’s my hobby. On average, I read a book about massage every one to two weeks and take a continuing education course at least once a month. Every time someone moves I subconsciously watch for patterns and postures and trying to figure out where people might have pain or soft tissue restrictions.

Anna, Kyle and I all tend to immerse ourselves in the world of massage so we find it fascinating that the average person has such a limited view of what massage has to offer. There tend to be two groups of thought regarding massage in the general populace; those who believe it is a luxurious relaxing experience and those who are of the “no pain, no gain” school of thought. This mindset was common even among the students in my class back in the days when I taught massage therapy. I opened the lecture of the deep tissue technique class by explaining that deep tissue wasn’t limited to learning how to properly apply pressure. The main purpose of the deep tissue class was learning how to get to the deep tissue.

Our bodies are made up of over 600 muscles. They are layered over one another with superficial muscles closer to the skin and the deep muscles being closer to the bone. Decades ago deep tissue massage was associated most closely with trigger point therapy which is a technique that uses pressure in order to release the trigger points or “knots” that can develop in muscles for a myriad of reasons. Massage therapy has undergone tremendous advancements over the course of the past few decades and the increased research is giving massage therapists cause to rethink this “no pain, no gain” approach to massage.

The discomfort of the traditional deep tissue therapy can feel productive, but unless carefully and skillfully applied can do more harm than good. Those layers of muscles don’t operate separately from one another. There are many direct and subtle interactions between the muscles that make it possible for them to make our bodies move. One important concept behind muscle dynamics is the protective impulse. When one muscle gets irritated or damaged, the surrounding tissues react by changing in order to protect the affected muscle. The surrounding tissues may tighten, take on the function of the damaged muscle or swell in order to do it’s part to allow the damaged muscle to heal. Heavy pressure may eventually release tension or address pain, but if it isn’t correctly applied the surrounding tissues will need to calm down before the healing process can begin.

Another important consideration is that many of us tend to ignore our pain signals. We all have busy lives and things like headaches, shoulder aches and knee, hip and low back pain are common. In a perfect world, we would take the time to adjust our posture, drink some water, change our ergonomics or do whatever we needed to take away the cause of the pain. In the real world, we often push through the pain, ignoring those important signals our body is using to tell us how to take care of it. That can make the concept of pressure complex for some folks; they can be so used to pain they have a hard time feeling other potentially more effective sensations. There can be a good deal of psychological stuff that goes into this too, but that’s another article in itself.

Thankfully pressure isn’t the only way to get to the deeper tissues. Anna uses a form of gentle compression and traction she refers to as ortho massage which is a gentle and extremely effective technique for calming tense tissues, releasing restrictions and improving range of motion. Kyle uses massage cupping which is a form of suction that improves blood flow to the tense area and reduces connective tissue restrictions. I prefer positional and myofascial release that allows me to feel for which way the tissues want to move so I can reduce postural compensations and improve movement.

The biggest takeaway for deep tissue work is to communicate openly with your therapist. Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes light, medium and heavy pressure and if you and your therapist aren’t on the same page, you’re risking being at best dissatisfied and at worst injured by your massage. Ask your therapist what their preferred deep tissue technique is. It’s a great opportunity to understand more about how your therapist works and how you respond to treatment. The more both of you understand about your goals and needs for the session, the more effective and enjoyable your session can be.

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