As I have primarily focused my practice on athletes and injuries, I am constantly faced with people’s expectations of what deep tissue massage is and how it feels. Pain seems to be most common expectation whether it is desire or not. While discomfort can be a part of a treatment, I don’t feel it is responsible on my part to inflict so much pain that other problems arise because of it.

I mentioned in my last article that the body is extremely adaptive. This can be extremely beneficial in terms of healing with an appropriate stimulus, but can also cause negative effects. If a massage is so painful that the recipient violently flinches and cannot relax, it is likely that other knots are forming elsewhere in the body. Over time, those knots can be just as problematic as the original problem being treated. This is entirely unnecessary and unproductive.

Massage can be tremendously therapeutic without leaving a person writhing in pain. Usually all that is required is a slower approach or different technique. It has been my experience that even the most tender areas can be treated without excessive pain if I am patient enough to allow the body to respond at its own rate. If drastically reducing the speed doesn’t relieve a lot of the pain, a different technique should be used to address the area in a smarter way. There is always another way to approach a problem and I feel it is important to find a solution that doesn’t cause harm in the process.

I see it as my duty as a therapist to find the right technique for each client I work with and ensure that they receive an effective treatment that is also a positive experience. Having a client scared and tense in anticipation of the treatment they are going to receive does not make my job easier and it doesn’t sound all that enjoyable either.

So, how much is too much? The rule I use is you should be able to control your facial expressions. Most people show pain on their face by cringing. Frequently this is controllable if the pain isn’t too great. If the pain is so much that you can’t keep your face relaxed with your will power, it is too much. You should be able to breath and relax enough to keep your face calm even if you don’t want to.

That’s my take on the pain associated with massage. Discomfort is acceptable. I’ve even been known to use some exquisite techniques from time to time, but it is always my goal to remain within my clients’ comfort and tolerance level. Plenty of effective work can be done and it is usually a much more pleasant experience for all involved when discomfort is limited to a reasonable level.