Deep Tissue Bodywork doesn’t have to be agony!

A few years ago I entrusted a trapped nerve in my neck to an experienced physiotherapist at the clinic I worked in at the time.  What followed was little short of assault as she laid into my upper back and shoulder, driving the point of her elbow back and forth through my already irritated tissues with no sensitivity and unbelievable force. It took a month of rest to recover from that “treatment”.

Sadly, the “no pain, no gain” mentality seems to be very prevalent among both therapists and clients in the massage and bodywork world. Many Tuina Chinese massage practitioners seem to regard brutality as the norm and I see countless sports massage therapists pummelling away at their unfortunate clients muscles in the belief they are doing some good.  I wince every time I hear a massage therapist talk about “working out a knot” as if they are tenderising a lump of dead meat. The truth is you do not “work out” a knot by brute force, you release it by carefully applied technique supported by sensitive palpation and deep understanding of tissue physiology.

[blockquote left=”0″]The truth is you do not “work out” a knot by brute force, you release it by carefully applied technique….[/blockquote]

Even in the holistic bodywork world there is much unnecessarily forceful treatment. In Rolfing and in Reichian work there is often the belief that the client must under go some kind of cathartic experience in order to be healed.  There are situations where catharsis, if properly managed, is beneficial, but to suggest that we have to go through torture on the massage couch for the good of our soul is misguided.

Many clients in fact become addicted to the intense stimulation of an overly vigorous massage. Such a massage is likely to trigger an adrenaline or endorphine rush.  Clients believe they are getting healed when in fact they are just getting high. They mistake the short term buzz from the massage for genuine wellbeing.  When I encounter such massage clients I am sometimes tempted to refer them to the local dominatrix!

When properly applied by a skilled massage therapist, deep tissue massage and bodywork does not have to be brutal. There are ways of melting through the surface layer into the deep tissues without causing trauma.  There are ways of precisely and sensitively listening to the tissues and judging exactly the correct degree, angle and rhythm of pressure to encourage the body to release naturally. The aim is to persuade your muscles to release not to bludgeon them into submission. Too little pressure and nothing is going to happen. Too much and your body will tense up in defence.

[blockquote left=”0″]….feel the massage as deep but comfortable with moments of “good pain”….[/blockquote]

When a therapist gets this right you will most likely feel the massage as deep but comfortable with moments of “good pain” when contracted and irritated tissue is contacted. Often we will be somewhere just on the threshold between pleasure and pain. I find most clients can sense instinctively  when the pressure is just right.

I use a simple colour scale to guide client’s feedback about what they are feeling.

White: No pain, just the pressure of my touch.
Blue: Dull aching or slight soreness
Red: Sharp, distinct or radiating pain

Reds and the upper end of blue are often the most important areas to treat, but the idea is not to pummel them into angry deep red, but to stay just at the edge of the pain and wait patiently for the body to release.