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Deep tissue massage has a gotten a reputation for being painful and it’s not uncommon for some new clients to get a fearful look in their eyes when I merely mention working deeper muscle tissue. When asked what their understanding of deep tissue massage is, quite often the answer is “It hurts!“. Let’s be clear….deep tissue massage doesn’t have to hurt!

There are, however, a few key elements important to receiving an enjoyable deep tissue massage:

1. A Massage Therapist That Specializes in Deep Tissue Massage

deep tissue massageMassage therapists that specialize in deep tissue massage often have advanced training in anatomy and technique to ensure a safe and pleasurable experience. With deep tissue work, there are a lot more opportunities to come in contact with important tissues other than muscle and a thorough understanding of anatomy is critical. “Deep tissue” includes all deep tissues, not just muscular. Nerves, blood vessels, bones and vital organs must all be carefully navigated.

Not all muscles are the same either. Some muscles are more sensitive to pressure based on their size, shape, location, and function. A muscle that lies adjacent to bone typically won’t tolerate prolonged deep pressure as well as a muscle that is surrounded by other soft-tissue and has room to move.

The massage therapist’s technique should also be well-suited for deep tissue work. (Technique refers to how the tissue is massaged and can make or break a great session.) Does your therapist jump right in and go for maximum pressure with their elbow? Hopefully, they give the tissue some time to warm up and start with a softer, broader tool such as their palm or forearm. Different parts of the body require different approaches and your massage therapist should be skilled at adjusting their technique accordingly.

2. Time & Patience To Perform Deep Tissue Massage Properly

massage clockIn order to perform a pain-free deep tissue massage, the therapist should slow down in direct proportion to the amount of pressure applied. The deeper the work, the slower the work. This is important to maintain the client’s comfort, not tear muscle fibers or push the nervous system into a sympathetic (fight or flight) state. (During massage we want your nervous system in a parasympathetic state, which is ideal for healing.) For a full-body deep tissue massage, the session should be at least 90 minutes if not longer. In reality, the appropriate session length actually depends on the size of the person receiving the massage, the condition of their tissue, and their personal preference for pressure.

Deep tissue massage has unfortunately become not much more than an up-charge for many spas to add to their menu of services. And when a 60-minute massage is actually only 50-minutes (as is often the case in spas), this leaves very little time for a decent full-body massage of any kind and makes a pain-free deep tissue massage nearly impossible.  Even if they are well-trained, massage therapists in this situation cannot take the appropriate time to perform a full-body deep tissue massage, and many clients don’t understand the need to work slowly. So clients that come into a spa requesting a “60-minute full-body deep tissue massage” (which is actually 50-minutes) often end up leaving disappointed. Either “the therapist didn’t go deep enough” but the client’s tissues are still in tact or “the massage hurt!” and the client may have torn muscle fibers. This leads to the false perception that “deep tissue massage hurts”!

Many therapists have great training and give an excellent Swedish massage but may lack the proper anatomical knowledge or experience to offer a safe and therapeutic deep tissue massage. Others do have the advanced training and experience, but are limited by time. So if you’re looking for great deep tissue work that doesn’t hurt, first find a massage therapist that specializes in deep tissue massage AND then make sure you book a session long enough for the therapist to work slowly and not push your body past it’s limits. And to other massage therapists, take the time to educate your clients on the appropriate session length and pressure to help them achieve their goals. It only creates a better experience for everyone and helps to dispel the myth that “deep tissue massage hurts“!