Massage is Supposed to Hurt, Right?


Did I say that too loudly? Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell.  I often hear things such as “massage isn’t good unless it hurts.” Or the famous “you can’t hurt me, dig in!” And sometimes “If I’m not sore for the rest of the week you haven’t done a good job.”

Many of you prefer a firmer pressure during your massage sessions. That’s cool. I can do that. I provide a firm pressure massage quite often. But I won’t dig until it hurts.

Shouldn’t I just breathe through the pain?

Lying on a massage table with your fists clenched while holding your breath is NOT doing your muscles any good. If you have to hold your breath or tense your body because the pressure is so hard then the pressure is TOO hard. The therapist could be damaging your muscle tissues. Bruising isn’t a typical side-effect of a massage session. There are better ways to achieve the “deep massage” feeling.



When I first started giving massages I couldn’t push deeply into a muscle to save my life! I would try and try to no avail. At times the massage would hurt or be uncomfortable to the client. Mostly, though, what I did hurt ME and was “not enough pressure” to the client. That is a no-win situation.

I didn’t have a good technique. If I was on the shoulder I would jab my thumb into the belly of the muscles then push until I saw red. No gliding, no assessing the muscles, only following directions “push harder.” Getting out of breath should have been my first clue I was doing something wrong. The sad part is, most of the time whatever I did wasn’t deep/hard enough for the client. I didn’t know there were easier, more effective ways to achieve a firm pressure massage without injuring myself or my client.

During the last few years I have spent quite a bit of time studying about how to massage muscles effectively. I (and other therapists) are learning there is much more to massage than rubbing muscles. The nervous system is the key.

It’s all about the brain

You’ve heard the saying “It’s all in your head.” Well, it’s sort of true. I’m not saying we make up symptoms or reactions to pressure in our heads, rather the brain tells our bodies and body parts what to do, how to feel, and how to react. What does that have to do with your “tight” muscles and my massage techniques? Absolutely everything.

If I’m digging into your muscles as hard as I can and your are flinching, your nervous system is telling your muscles to protect themselves. Your muscles are instructed to fight back to whatever is happening to them. This pretty much negates anything the massage is intended to do. The muscles don’t relax, they tense. Your pain doesn’t go away. Your mind doesn’t relax. Total opposite of what we want to happen in a session. In fact, if I push as hard as I can you could end up feeling worse.

If your muscles are feeling tight or in a spasm it is the nervous system telling them to be that way. Instead of pain being a signal sent to your brain, pain is actually a signal coming FROM your brain to the muscles. If they are overly tight (hypertonic) the brain, for whatever reason, has instructed them to do so. Digging in too soon will only enhance this signal to the muscle. If we want the hypertonic muscle to be closer to a normal tone, then we need to have a conversation with the brain.

Relaxation massage techniques at the beginning of your massage starts the conversation with the brain. We want your brain to understand we are not intending to hurt your muscles. We intend to soothe muscles to relieve pain. Slow, steady movements feel good to you. They also change the stimuli to the brain from “protect this muscle” to “un-tense this muscle.” This is the kind of talk we want with the brain.

Just because the massage begins with slow light pressure doesn’t mean firm pressure won’t be applied. I will continue with slow, steady movements. Over time I will gradually apply more pressure to your problem area. To you it will feel like I’m digging through the layers of muscle. To me it won’t be so difficult because I’ll be working with your nervous system instead of against it. I won’t actually have to push as hard as I can but it will feel like I am.

Massage shouldn’t hurt. Painful massages probably won’t help you feel better long term. You should tell me if part of your session is hurts. I can apply a different technique or different pressure. This doesn’t mean you will only get light pressure, I just won’t “dig in” too quickly.