Massage has to be painful to be effective. Fact or myth?

Massage has to be painful to be effective. Fact or myth?

You’ve probably heard of the saying no pain no gain, but does that apply to massage therapy? The short answer is no! But if it’s not painful, surely it’s not working? Again, not true!

This is one of the most common things I hear as a massage therapist. Clients like their massage to hurt because they believe that if it’s not hurting then it’s not working. In reality, the opposite is actually true. Let me explain…

The body is very clever, and is able to protect itself in a number of ways. Those tense muscles that you have are the body’s way of preventing an injury. Sounds a bit weird, right? If the brain detects that your body is at risk of injury (via the various inputs from your nerves), it will put things in place to stop you continuing whatever it is that is putting the body at risk. For example if you are doing a very repetitive movement, or lifting something heavy, the brain will tell the muscles to tighten up to protect the area, and you will feel pain which is the bodies way of preventing you from continuing to do the same action. So clever!

But how does that relate to massage? If your body suspects that there is danger, it will tense up the muscles. The exact opposite of what we want to achieve during a massage! There is also a chance that your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) is overactive in times of injury, pain or stress. By inducing more pain, we are activating this system more whereas we want to calm this system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest). By staying below the pain threshold we can let the body know that there is no danger and that it can relax the muscles that are in protection mode.

Let’s also think about the muscles themselves. You’re most likely aware of the need to warm up before exercising and the same is true for massage. We need to warm up the tissues before we can do any deeper work on them. Think about your muscles like play doh. When it’s cold, it’s difficult to mould the play doh, and if you’re too rough it can tear. Likewise for our muscles. If we don’t warm the muscles up well enough before doing any deeper work, we can actually damage some of the muscle fibres! The different techniques used during a massage aim to relax the muscle so that we can work on them effectively, and often really tense muscles require lots of gentle massage to encourage them to relax.

Everyone has different pain thresholds and different preferences for pressure during massage, and this is why your therapist will check in with you during the massage. It is important to be honest with your therapist if they are being too firm or light with their pressure, so that they can adjust this to achieve the best results for your body and an enjoyable massage for you! Some areas may be tender during the massage, or during certain techniques such as trigger point therapy. A certain level of discomfort is ok, but it should not be to the point where you are holding your breath, tensing your muscles, or clenching your jaw. Any initial discomfort when working on problem areas should lessen within a few moments as the muscles begin to relax. If it continues, or gets worse, please let your therapist know straight away.

Horses are very quick to let me know if they don’t like an area being worked on, or if I’m being too firm on a sore spot! They will move away, put their ears back, or if it’s really sore (or I don’t get the hint the first time!) they may try to bite or kick! I greatly appreciate my human clients not biting or kicking me, but please don’t ever feel afraid to let me know if an area is too painful!

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