Deep Tissue vs. Deep Pressure Blog header

So now you know the difference between deep tissue and deep pressure in massage therapy because you read Part I, right? If you missed it, click here to check it out. I’ll wait…

So we’re all caught up now, right? Fantastic!

Picture it: You’ve finally stopped making excuses about not having time and scheduled yourself an hour deep tissue massage. By the skin of your teeth, you arrived to the appointment on time, talked with the massage therapist about your tense areas and are laying on the table waiting for the therapist to come in (silently thanking your past self for making this appointment.) It already feels good to just lay there, so imagine how you’ll feel after the massage!          

* Knock Knock *                           

The therapist enters the room. She starts massaging your shoulders and it feels….ow! Okay, you knew that you were tense, but, man, those shoulders are really sore! Deep tissue massage, yup, she is definitely giving you a deep tissue massage. Is she trying to reach your feet through your shoulders?! Ow. You try to breathe and relax…owwwwwwwww. Everything. Hurts. 

Too much pressure

Hopefully, this scenario doesn’t sound familiar to you. Unfortunately, I can relate because I’ve had a massage or two where I felt like I was being attacked as opposed to massaged. Knowing this happens to people makes me sad because 1) they did not have a good massage experience and, therefore, did not get all the benefits from it, and 2) due to that past experience, it is going to take the client longer to relax and even longer to trust that I will not hurt him.

Science Break!

So how does all that science mumbo-jumbo relate to massage? Hold on tight, you’re in for a wild ride! Just kidding, it’s actually not that bad.

Via mechanoreceptors, the body perceives a stimulus (touch from the massage)   —->   through a series of complex processes, the nervous system interprets the information   —->   the nervous system initiates a response.

You’ve heard of the Fight or Flight response, yes? It is another term for the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is activated when the body is introduced to a stressor. The Sympathetic Nervous System dilates the pupils, increases heart rate, signals energy to be released to the muscles and many other processes that help your body react to the stressor. For example,if the pressure is too much during the massage, the nervous system’s response, through the sympathetic nervous system, is the automatic tensing of the muscles, or muscle guarding.


Nerd Alert!


How does the body get to the wonderfully massage drunk state of euphoria?

I strongly believe that it is impossible to massage one part of the body and not affect the whole body. It is amazing how many times I start with a simple scalp massage and hear people say that it helps their whole body relax. The body is a complex and ever changing flux in attempt to keep homeostasis, or balance. Massage therapy has the ability to help the body maintain that balance, both physically and mentally.

As stated in Part I of this blog, my job is to work with the muscles. For me, that means warming up the tissues and allowing them to release layer by layer, working deeper until the muscles “tell” me to stop or until the client states that the pressure is optimal for him. 

Remember the Sympathetic Nervous System response when the massage pressure was too much? On the flip side, one goal of massage is to activate the Parasympathatic Nervous System, aka, the Rest & Digest response. When the Parasympthatic Nervous System is activated, the pupils constrict, the heart rate decreases, blood pressure lowers, breathing slows, and the appropriate signals are sent to the gastrointestinal system to increase digestion and elimination.

In other words, you feel relaxed and your muscles feel looser because they have been coaxed into “letting go” of the tension. 

Now does this mean massage is going to be completely pain free? Well, it can if you are looking for that type of relaxation only massage. And it’s completely okay if that is what you want. Sometimes, it’s what we need. But if you are looking for a massage with even more therapeutic benefits, you may experience some “good” pain. I can’t give you an exact definition, but if you have experienced it, you know what I mean. It’s one of those ooh-that-hurts-but-it-hurts-so-good-and-please-don’t-stop-because-it’s-going-to-feel-even-better-aftewards type of feeling.

Let’s finish this off by bringing it around full circle, shall we?

Deep Pressure: The physical force you feel when my hands make contact with the muscles, or the amount of “push” or “force” I exert on the muscles. 

Deep Tissue: Working the deeper layers of muscle and fascia.

Although deep pressure and deep tissue are two different things, they both can be achieved by working with the muscles, minimizing the fight-or-flight response. Though some deep tissue work does require deeper pressure, there are some techniques that may not feel like much, but the affects of it go very deep.

It is quite common for different parts of the body to tolerate different pressures. And since the body is in a constant state of change, it is even more common for the body to tolerate different pressure from one massage session to the next. A key proponent to receiving a great massage is to communicate with your therapist about your levels of comfort.

If you’re still reading this, kudos for hanging in there! This was a long post and I hope you learned something from it and have a better understanding of why massage therapy is a mixture of science, art, intuition and lateral thinking.

Sources: Massage Therapy Principles and Practice, Susan Salvo 

Clinical Massage Therapy, Fiona Rattray and Linda Ludwig 

Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology, Elaine N. Marieb