Deep Tissue Massage: A treatment experience unique to the individual
Deep tissue massage is an artform. It requires a trained eye, a sensitive touch, and a great deal of compassion, empathy, and patience to be effective.
If there is one thing I have learned from my experience as a massage therapist in Portland it is that there is a high demand for deep pressure massage. Early in my massage career, people would come to me for deep tissue treatments expecting (and sometimes demanding) intense amounts of pressure for the entire duration of the massage session. A youngster to the practice, and not wanting to disappoint, I would stress and strain, attempting to will the muscles into submission and give my client what they wanted. But, as I quickly learned, what these clients requested was not always what was best for them, and with the amount of exertion I was putting into each massage, it most certainly wasn’t good for me, either.
What is deep tissue massage? This is a commonly asked question, to which there is a generally simple answer, and many more complex and unique interpretations and forms of practice. To begin with the simple answer, deep tissue massage therapy works on the tissue that lies deep to the surface of your body. You have many layers of muscles overlapping one another, and deep tissue massage addresses those that modalities such as Swedish relaxation massage generally do not. The methods used to access these tissues can and often do incorporate deep pressure, but they also make use of stretches, strengthening techniques, and hydrotherapy, as well as muscle energy technique (MET), which helps to reset neurological obstructions that can cause physical dilemmas such as pain and restricted movement. Additionally, deep tissue massage therapists often do assessments of posture prior to and during your massage treatment. They may have you demonstrate your range of motion, palpate areas where muscular restrictions have offset your skeletal alignment, and/or study the way that you walk, all to help determine the root of your complaint. Deep tissue massage therapists may incorporate relaxation treatments into a session to soften superficial tissues enough to be able to palpate and treat underlying causes of the client’s symptom or complaint. As I’m sure you can see by my brief explanation above, explaining the art of deep tissue massage can be complex.
In my own practice, my “deep tissue massage” includes Swedish relaxation, myofascial massage, structural integration bodywork, MET, stretching and strengthening, reiki, somatic release, and therapeutic homework assignments derived from yoga asana. My influences and understanding of the body come from my studies of kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, pathology, Thai massage, yoga, psychology, energetic physiology, and metaphysics, and is forever growing. My pressure ranges from light touch to very deep, as indicated by the cues that I receive from your tissues. I may use all of the methods I listed above, or I may use just a few; it is entirely dependent upon what you bring to my table. That being said, each client will have a unique experience when they come in for my deep tissue treatment.
Every body is different. As common as this expression may be, it is very true. When viewed as a population, people exhibit many of the same musculoskeletal symptoms, such as neck and shoulder pain, back pain, knee pain, foot pain, and more, that come on as a result of adapting our bodies to work, cars, computers, and all the daily activities we love and loath. But humans come in all shapes and sizes. We have a wide variety of postural habits, self-care habits, sleeping habits, and dietary habits and needs. We also have different experiences and perceptions of pain, and a variety of personal history that has shaped our physical and emotional behavioral patterns throughout our lives. All of these complex possibilities typically show up as common symptoms, but the story behind them will always be unique to you, and will determine the level and variety of sensations you experience on my massage table.
The human body is a web of connective tissues through which course vital fluids and delicate little sensory receptors we call nerves. When the body or parts of the body are very tense, movement is restricted, affecting circulation and nerve sensation. To the touch, this can feel like the skin has been stretched tight like a drum, and the definition of the finer muscles below are difficult or impossible to discern from one another. To you, the client, the sensation can show up in a variety of ways. Sometimes it may feel like there is little or no sensation during the treatment, no matter how deep the pressure. Other times you might feel like a moderate or even light pressure is too far out of your comfort zone. Outside of pain level, tissue restrictions can create a symphony of sensations, from pain at the lightest touch to feeling very ticklish. Ticklishness is a result of tension. While the scientific jury is still out on why we sometimes feel ticklishness instead of pain during massage, the reaction elicited by feeling tickled certainly lends support to the hypothesis!
It is also important to note that both pressure level and technique can bring up emotional pain and discomfort, which is equally as valid as physical sensation. Deep tissue massage treatments release not only physical tension, but the emotional memories that contribute to their creation.
Deep tissue massage can be adapted and performed to suit your physical and emotional well-being via good communication and an open-minded approach during your massage session. While there are times in a deep tissue massage treatment that might necessitate pushing through levels of discomfort to achieve effective change, it is also quite common for the experience to be relaxing and feel wonderful. As mentioned above, the word “deep” is used simply because the techniques allow massage therapists to work on the deeper layers of tissue. As one who incorporates somatic release into a treatment, I also like to embrace an alternate definition of the word: my focus is not only to resolve physical concerns, but to create a massage treatment experience that is profound, meaningful, transcendental, and spiritual.
As massage should be.
Anna Horvitz, Licensed Massage Therapist
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to set up a deep tissue massage appointment.