Many people seek massage therapy—the manual manipulation of muscles and tendons beneath the skin—for relief from any kind of physical pain. Deep tissue massage therapy is often the massage of choice for athletes who want help with healing from various injuries or for those seeking help with the management of chronic pain or muscle tension.
Similar in style to Swedish massage—one of the most popular forms of relaxation massage—deep tissue massage targets the innermost layers of the body’s muscles, tendons, and fascia (the densely woven tissue that connects parts inside the body). Deep tissue massage can also provide relaxation, but massage therapists who specialize in deep tissue typically use much stronger pressure.
What Is Deep Tissue Massage?
This approach to massage was practiced in the United States as early as the late 1800s but was not a popular form of massage until massage therapist Therese Pfrimmer established guidelines and methods for this technique in her 1949 book, Muscles: Your Invisible Bonds. Today, the technique is often used by sports medicine practitioners and physical therapists.
Research has shown just 45 to 60 minutes of deep tissue massage can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormone levels, and decrease heart rate. A study from the University of Maryland found deep tissue massage was even more effective for treating chronic pain than some other medical treatment options. One of the most common culprits for chronic pain is inflammation in the body’s soft tissue, and by increasing blood flow throughout the body, this massage technique is often able to reduce that inflammation. Massage therapists may also work to loosen clusters of tight tissue resulting from physical stress, providing further relief for tense muscles.
In addition to physical benefits, deep tissue massage therapy may also have mental health benefits. Massage can increase release of serotonin—a feel-good neurotransmitter—which is associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure.
What to Expect from a Deep Tissue Massage Session
Before a session begins, the client will typically be led to the treatment room and asked to remove their clothes and lie down under a sheet or blanket on the massage table. In most cases, and based on comfort level, it is up to the client to determine whether to leave undergarments on. Clients will generally be covered with a sheet for the majority of the session. Those who have privacy concerns may wish to discuss these with the massage therapist before the session begins.
A session of deep tissue massage typically starts with relaxation methods borrowed from Swedish or traditional massage. The massage therapist might focus the first several minutes on warming and loosening the muscles at the surface of the area being worked on, as making these muscles more pliable will make it easier for the therapist to reach the deeper muscles and tendons later on. A single session can focus on a particular region of the body or encompass the entire body. The massage therapist and client usually have a conversation prior to the session to determine the client’s specific treatment goals.
Deep Tissue Massage Techniques
Some strokes massage therapists use in deep tissue massage include kneading, tapping, circular movements, and elongated movements, and they may use elbows and forearms for increased pressure in addition to knuckles and fingertips. The massage therapist may ask the client to breathe through some of the slower, elongated movements, because increased oxygen can help to relax the body.
Pressure can be adjusted based on comfort. A common misconception of deep tissue massage is that it is supposed to hurt. Pain is actually counterproductive in a massage session, as a client who is bracing against any painful strokes from the massage therapist is just making the muscles tighter and less pliable. It is important to have an open line of communication with a massage therapist, so pressure and movement can be altered throughout the session.
After the session, the client may experience tenderness or soreness, and the massage therapist may recommend ice or heat for easing any pain. It can also be helpful to drink water immediately following the session to flush out any toxins and rehydrate the body’s muscles. Even if the client does not experience any soreness after the massage, simple stretches can prevent any potential stiffness. It is generally recommended to avoid any strenuous activity after a massage to give the body time to recuperate.
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