Pressure: A Touchy Subject
We’ve all been to the gym, and heard the strained grunts of exertion. Watched beads of sweat rolling off veiny red foreheads. Seen miles of colorful k-tape stripes on countless legs and arms. Taken a glance at huge chalkboards dominated with today’s string of tortuous exercises, and the half-joking complaints of broken body parts. No Pain, No Gain, right? Or is it?
That old adage just keeps coming around to haunt us over and over, though it seems counter-intuitive to our physiology. We have pain receptors in every layer of our body that are built to protect us. So why do we continue to think that we must choose pain to feel better?
The overwhelming majority of clients surveyed indicated that they left their last therapist because of “too much pressure”, and yet the overwhelming majority of clients request heavy pressure or the misunderstood “Deep Tissue” massage.
So what is an actual Deep Tissue Massage?
Deep Tissue is not the same as Extreme Pressure. A Deep Tissue Massage focuses on the deeper lying structures of the body that take more time and focused attention to reach. Because it can take a very long time for the overlying tissues to relax, it’s usually best to limit the session to a single area of the body. Depending on your stress level, it can take the entire hour to allow the layers of muscle to relax one by one until the therapist can reach the lowest layers. Massage should never involve creating more pain, or the use of extreme force, and you should never feel beat up, or in increased pain.
"Creating trauma to heal trauma seems a bit like setting your kitchen on fire in order to clean it."
Creating trauma to heal trauma seems a bit like setting your kitchen on fire in order to clean it. Maybe what you actually need is just to put on some headphones with your favorite music and spend an afternoon paying some attention to it.
Somehow the misinformation that a “deep tissue” massage is somehow a better treatment than a relaxation massage has made an appearance in Massage Therapy. Perhaps we have been convinced by guru methods with products and patented tools that you can buy for the low, low price of 4 easy payments of only $39.99, to think that the more complex or painful a solution is, the better it works. But the research says otherwise. The most effective massage treatments engage the nervous system and utilize the relaxation response to create the feeling of space, looseness and reconnection.
Often, the simplest explanation is the correct one. Most likely what your body truly needs is just to be paid attention to. Maybe, just maybe, the best treatment you can give an aching body is just the freedom and permission to let go. How often do we uber-busy, productive members of society, get the chance to just stop and breathe? Without considering what else we should be doing, or what we are doing next, or what we have done all day before?
the state of being free from tension and anxiety.
A good pressure level will engage the highly innervated layers of your skin, and will then move into the deeper layers of muscle to the point that those muscles are relaxed and “want” the pressure. Picture a target. Red ring, white ring, red ring, white ring, and so on. The goal is to have each “ring” release tension before moving to the next “ring” further in.
"A good pressure is one under which the client is able to breathe and relax without having to cringe or tense any muscles. A painful massage can actually be counterproductive and have the opposite results from what both client and therapist were seeking."
- John Marasigan, AOS, BA, LMT, CMT, BCTMB
Too light of an approach won’t hit the bulls-eye, and too heavy of an approach will cause tension instead of releasing it. It requires an adaptive approach from a therapist that is fully present and engaged in listening with their hands. And it’s most effective with a client who has let go of the false concept that only a painful massage can produce results, and who has given in to the magic of the relaxation response.
And besides, what could it hurt?
Originally Published: 10/17/2017. Updated 09/24/2019