I find it somewhat amusing when a new client comes to me for deep tissue massage and preface their session by saying "You can go as deep as you want. I know it's going to hurt. I mean, it's got to in order to be any good, right? Anyway, I'm pretty sure I can take it..."
The truth of the matter is that sometimes the most effective massages are the ones that don't cause you any pain, or at least, very little.
Deep tissue might cause some discomfort
In fact, a good massage therapist will have mastered techniques for applying deep pressure while minimizing your discomfort. After all, anybody can just go in there and 'mash out' an area with their elbows or knees until you squeal for mercy, but a great therapist knows you can't force a muscle to release. You can only encourage it to do so.
What is deep tissue massage?
Deep tissue massage describes the technique used to manipulate the soft tissues of your body, such as muscles and fascia, that lie under other more superficial muscles of your body.
For example, think of the muscles of your hips. The superficial muscle would be your gluteus maximus (the part of your butt that gives it shape), while the more ‘deep’ muscles might include the medial gluteus, gluteus minimus and the rotator muscles of the hip.
Many times it is the 'deep' muscles that are the culprits of chronic pain. Therefore, in order for your therapist to restore you to your normal, pain-free range of motion, he or she must first work through and relax the layers of the top layer of superficial muscles in order to effectively reach the deeper ones. Neglect this process and you will probably experience more pain during your treatment than what is necessary.
Deep tissue massage is not for everyone. It is one of the more involved and intense massage techniques. Typically deep tissue massage is recommended for those with chronic pain caused by tight or spasmodic muscles. In these cases, the application of deep tissue massage can be very therapeutic because it helps relieve patterns of tension that have developed over time.
These patterns may have been caused by injury or trauma to the body, inherent or autonomic positioning (think of the favorite way you sit or stand), and repetitive use injuries such as carpal tunnel or 'texting' thumb.
Pain versus Discomfort
Muscles naturally react to any form of pain. Sometimes they even react in anticipation of it.
This response is called "muscle guarding" and is a natural reflex used to deflect a painful encounter. Sometimes, if your massage therapist is applying too much pressure to an area too quickly, your muscles may respond by tightening together to counteract the force applied. Unfortunately, this is the opposite response desired.
This is where a good massage therapist would check in with you to see how you were doing under this pressure. Massage is meant to relieve the tension of your muscles so if you feel as though you're in a vice-grip of death, now would be the time to inform your practitioner. Just ask them to use a bit less pressure.
Deep tissue is not a "spa" treatment.
While you may find a good deep tissue massage therapist at a spa, this modality is not typically associated with nurturing or soothing the body the way most spa treatments do. As I've mentioned earlier, it's a process that's quite involved. So, despite what I've said about minimizing pain, it would be unwise to assume that a deep tissue massage won't cause any discomfort at all.
However, everybody has different tolerances for pain and because of this, some people even describe the discomfort associated with deep tissue massage as a "good hurt" – Still, this description is far from the "white knuckle" pain experience that should not be the norm. Extreme pain can cause more than 'discomfort' and could even cause bruising or additional injury.
That is why I am always cautious when working with my clients. I always do a pre-session interview where we discuss the particulars of their massage including the length of time that has passed since their last massage. I also ask if their treatment was provided by a spa or a private practitioner like myself. This information helps me determine their experience with massage, how to begin our session and how to educate them on what can be expected both during and after the massage.
For example, if you've never had a deep tissue massage before (or it's been a while), I would let you know that I start gently and will rely on your input to gauge my depth. If you are more experienced with this modality, but it's been a while since your last treatment, I will still rely on your input but will preface our session by letting you know that I don't believe in the "white knuckle; gimme all ya got; make me hurt" treatment.
That said, I use techniques that in many cases distract you from how deep I am actually going so that I can effectively apply pressure to the areas that need it while avoiding the automatic response of muscle guarding. So, while it may not feel as uncomfortable as you might have anticipated, that by no means indicates that you are not getting a deep tissue massage.
However, if you're booking your very first massage, my best advice to you would probably be - don't start out with a deep tissue session. Instead, I’d encourage you to ease your way into massage therapy by starting with something less specific like Swedish or integrative (therapeutic) massage.