by Sue Shekut, Licensed Massage Therapist, ACSM Personal Trainer, Certified Wellness Coach, Owner, Working Well Massage
Through the years I’ve had a number of massage therapy clients say things like, “I know it has to hurt to be effective,” and “no pain no gain, right?” Actually, massage does not, and should not ,“hurt” to be effective. In fact, if the massage you are receiving is so painful you have to grit your teeth or hold your breath, it likely isn’t going to be very effective.
The idea that we have to experience pain in order to heal is a holdover from the 1980’s when people were “going for the burn” and many bodywork modalities were just starting to take root. Some massage therapy schools of thought held that people were experiencing deep emotional breakthroughs if they cried out or had an emotional “release” during a particularly intense bodywork session. This led to the idea that you HAD to have a deep emotional outburst or had to feel pain to have a really “good” bodywork experience.
Since then, somatic psychology and bodywork has matured. As have bodywork practitioners. Many realize that, especially for people that have already had a physical trauma such as a car accident or injury, the body has already been through deep trauma. Working too deep, giving too much pressure, or expecting clients to have radical transformation from a single session can be retraumatizing.
Some massage therapists still hold to the belief that trigger points need intense compression to release the knot. Sometimes this is true. But holding a trigger point for too long, or pressing too deeply into a sore muscle area can cause more pain and damage than healing. (Trigger points are areas of the muscles that have a cluster of muscular adhesions or “knots” that refer pain elsewhere when compressed.)
Good Pain Versus Bad Pain
Does that mean that massage should be painless? Well herein lies the rub (pun intended). Massage is not painless any more than working out is painless. There can be muscle soreness. When we first press on a sore or extremely tight muscle area, there may be tenderness or soreness. We call this “good pain” similar to the soreness you may experience when you lift weights or do a prolonged cardio session. However, if you are working out and you “pull” a muscle or sprain your ankle, that would be “bad pain.” That type of pain indicates an injury to the tissue and requires medical attention. Muscle soreness during an exercise or massage session is not abnormal and can indicate that healing is occurring.
What About Soreness?
When a tight muscle is massaged, at first you may notice the sensation of soreness or tenderness. Initially you become more aware of that muscle area and that may include an awareness of just how very tight and sore the muscle is. Then as the massage therapist continues to work with the muscle tissue, fresh blood flows into the muscle area as the therapist presses down (as in compressions or gliding strokes). This fresh blood helps “loosen” the muscle tissue and also helps bring nutrients and oxygen into the muscle. At this point, especially in a deep tissue massage, you will likely notice less soreness in the area. If the muscle gets more and more sore, the massage therapist may be overworking the area and it’s best if you tell him or her to stop massaging that area and to move elsewhere!
That all said, after a deep tissue massage, you may feel some muscle soreness a day or two afterwards, just as you may feel sore after a workout. In essence, a deep tissue massage is like having someone else give your body a workout. Soreness or bruising lasting longer than a day or so may indicate the massage was too intense. Let your massage therapist know if this happens so he or she knows to work with less pressure for your next massage. (If you go back to him or her at all!)
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