Under Pressure: Preparing the Body
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“It’s not how deep you go, it’s how you go deep.”
-Dr. Ida P. Rolf, Biochemist, Creator of Rolfing/Structural Integration
Have you ever told a massage therapist, “go as deep as you can, you can’t hurt me?” You are certainly not the only one.
The truth is, deep pressure that is painful, creates extreme soreness or bruising may not be an effective way to achieve your massage therapy goals.
Like an onion, our bodies are made in layers. The more superficial layers need to be warmed and released first. Pressing through muscle tissue layers too quickly to “get deep” may actually make us tense up and “fight” the deep pressure for which we’ve asked. Have you ever noticed that you are holding your breath while receiving deep massage? Or that your shoulders are tensing into your ears? Or your hands are gripped into fists? If so, your body might be saying, “less pressure please, I can’t fully relax.”
Massage intends to calm the nervous system, not send it spiraling into “fight or flight” mode (I’ll discuss this more in the next post). Lighter pressure prepares the body for deeper work by allowing the outer layers of muscle tissue to soften and easily give way. Then the therapist can access deeper structures with little to no force. This may happen in a span of one session or multiple, depending on your massage therapy goals and chronic pain pattern.
Consider an area of chronic pain in your body, such as plantar fasciitis, stiff neck, or low back pain. Think about how long this pain has been present- 6 weeks, 6 months, too many years to count…Several layers of muscle, connective, and neural tissue are involved in this pain pattern, not to mention compensatory movement patterns, and may need multiple sessions to reduce or resolve.
It is unrealistic to think one massage session with the therapist “going as deep as he or she can” is going to resolve years of chronic pain.
On the contrary, deep work too quickly on an inflamed heel, tender neck, or strained low back may create pain, spasm, increased inflammation, and even bruising. Massage therapy goals may include decreasing pain and improving range of motion, not re-creating pain symptoms.
My message is not against deep tissue therapies. My message is to challenge the thinking that, “deeper is better.” Several beneficial deep tissue therapies exist and are applied by professional massage therapists with competence. In my work with clients we are affecting deep layers of the body while generally staying in the client’s comfort zone. I consider the client’s initial pain level, range of motion, therapy goals, and overall health when proceeding with therapeutic massage techniques.
Again, “it’s not how deep you go, it’s how you go deep.”