Massage Therapist Insider Series: How much pressure is too much pressure?

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Posted by Alicia McCarthy

When I used to work at spas, I would get a lot of male clients who would size me up, and say, “Give me as much pressure as you can muster, lil’ lady…”( okay it wasn’t as John Wayne as all that). I think that they had the impression that tons of pressure meant that they were getting their money’s worth. Or that if I gave them all of the pressure I could, they would be “cured”.

Don’t get me wrong, I, myself, am a fan of pressure when it is needed and appropriate. However, if the body is not accustomed to deep pressure, it can be sent into a “fight or flight” mode of survival thereby contradicting the relaxation aspect of massage.

The body’s autonomic nervous system is divided into three parts. The enteric, which operates unconsciously and controls the function of organs, The parasympathetic, which is responsible for the body’s resting functions like digestion or salivation. The sympathetic nervous system responds when the body senses danger, and kicks in as a means for survival. Sounds relaxing, right?

That same part of the nervous system can be triggered if the body perceives the act of getting a DEEP tissue massage as extremely painful.

Pain perception is very interesting. What we think we can endure as far as physical pain is concerned can be vastly different to what is actual necessary to receiving a good deep tissue massage. Deep tissue doesn’t actually have to mean that the receiver is gasping in pain, and that their role is to just “get through it”. The technique of deep tissue massage refers to the slow application of sustained pressure across the fibers of the muscle belly. And yes, the end result is technically muscle damage. The idea is to eradicate holding patterns that exist in the body in order to allow healthy, new patterns to develop. Patterns that can come about with the help of massage therapy.

If the receiver has been a long time receiver of deeper work, then their response to extreme pressure is something that their body understands. That “hurts so good” concept is something that can be very real to their individual pain perception. Communication is key for both the massage therapist and the client. When that balance of deep pressure and soothing relaxation is struck, then true healing can begin!

Sources: The Principles of Anatomy and Physiology 11th edition by Gerard Tortora and Bryan Derrikson

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