Deep Tissue: Is it about depth of pressure or depth of feeling?

October 11, 2023

When someone asks for Deep Tissue Massage they often follow it up with “I want you to really get in there. I don’t care how much it hurts. Do whatever you need to do.”

This sentiment involves many different informing experiences.

  1. We are SOOOOO used to procedures being done TO US in a way that it is something to be endured. Like, I can’t think of a single medically corrective procedure that involves an innately pleasant experience start to finish. Besides maybe I.V. vitamin infusions. And even then, you have to be ultimately ok with needles. Or maybe there is a medical practice that most people don’t know about that feels more like a spa or something vs. a Ready Med. And yet, the setting and bed side manner doesn’t change the fact that most western medicine involves something being done to our bodies in ways that do not involve working alongside our physiology.
  2. Most people are miseducated about deep tissue massage and believe that the only way to recover from muscle pain is applying the highest amount of targeted direct pressure to a trigger point. In a quantitative way, we equate more direct pressure to mean faster muscle recovery and relief.
  3. They are sick and tired of experiencing this pain and discomfort. And, they’ll endure even more pain if it means they won’t experience the chronic pain anymore (even if for a short period of time) although it will probably end up being an endless cycle of experiencing the same kind of chronic pain with no change despite receiving massage regularly.

While manual muscle rehab (massage) CAN involve pain, experiencing high intensity pain does not mean the treatment is going to be the most effective. What if the pain you are getting the massage for is not acting as a warning sign of danger, but is more a signal from our body to our brain that it needs attention in order for the muscle to relax? I really do believe that massage is a powerful tool that helps us intentionally perceive our tissues to help our bodies help themselves.

What has me concerned about the method of applying intense direct pressure as THE massage experience that will bring healing is the roles the pain plays in our bodies. Yes, muscle rehab and recovery does involve experiencing pain, but as I’ve discussed before, there are 2 different experiences of pain in massage.

Productive pain – pain that is ultimately tolerable and feels like it’s doing something.
Danger pain – pain that requires you to mentally separate from the experience in order to endure the sensation, it usually is your body indicating that we’re harming your muscle tissues.

Pain is an indicator of POSSIBLE impending danger if something doesn’t change or an actual indication of harm happening.
And sometimes when we spend most of our conscious experience in our minds, living in our bodies as a means to an end, it can be difficult for us to tell the difference between the 2. Especially when we have already been trained to think that anything that will help our body be healthy is meant to be at least a bummer or a whole big ordeal to endure.
This combination can lead us to confuse our brain’s perception of which type of pain we’re experiencing. Often diminishing the DANGER DANGER pain as if it were really the Productive Pain that muscle rehab pain utilizes.

The trouble with high intensity direct pressure deep tissue is that we are often perpetuating the separation of mind & body. The level of pain that is realllllly tough to breath through, might have you seeing stars, has you counting down the seconds to the end, probably clenching your jaw, is drawing you away from feeling your body. It’s centering your awareness away from the pain because it is so intense.

Because muscle pain is bringing a possible issue into conscious awareness, it is asking for your conscious awareness to connect with that area for more information to better physiologically accommodate that area’s needs.

When we work below that harmful threshold, there is probably still pain but your body is relaxed and your tissues are using that information to adjust. And you’ll find the quality of the feeling changes and the area that held tension is now way more relaxed.

So, if you’ve read this far and you are someone who considers deep tissue massage to be the equivalent of pressing your fingers into your eye sockets agony intensity as the most effective treatment for your chronic pain and restricted motion I invite you to ponder about your past experiences of deep tissue and your present experience of how you mentally relate to pain in your muscles.

When super intense pressure is being applied and you have to actively engage to re-relax, the quality of the sensation may change and the pain may diminish, are you feeling those changes in a positive way? Can you feel that area relaxing? Or does it feel like nothing? Does it continue to feel effective as you understand it?
Are you asking for MORE pressure because you are sitting in the “no pain, no gain” scenario? And the absence of pain is indicating that the therapy isn’t being done properly. Are you experiencing the treatment very mind-oriented, mind-over-matter, “that is what I KNOW I need, no matter what my body FEELS about it”?

Super intense direct pressure deep tissue may very well increase your range of motion and decrease muscular pain for a short period of time. Albeit, after a few days continued restricted range of motion and/or pain. But does the quality of the pain change over time?

When I’m working with someone to help them heal from injury or chronic pain and we’ve been working together for 3+ sessions with no real change of the quality of the pain when it returns, I adjust our work and approach accordingly.

If you regularly go for Deep Tissue Massage and you want the LMT to just lay all their weight into their elbow in to your back, and the pain and restriction is still the same quality when it returns month after month… Are you helping your body in the way that it needs? Or could you be exerting your mental will to over ride your body’s innate healing possibility?

This therapy is meant to bring you into better communication and awareness with your body. Not only in conscious ways that you mentally experience. But also in physiological ways that may be imperceptable if you’ve been living in your mind most of your life.

Muscle pain is a message. It’s a conscious call from your body for your mental awareness so it can heal better. Don’t ignore it. It isn’t meant to be endured for healing purposes. It’s mean to be felt to provide better feedback for mind-body communication.

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