De-mystifying Deep Tissue (and other bodywork techniques)

Deep Tissue

Often misunderstood by the public as well as therapists, Deep Tissue Massage is not a “rub me harder” massage at all. In fact, depth into the tissues requires a palpatory intentional touch to work through and under the top layers. It is more of a “finesse” to reach those lower layers of tissues to avoid damaging the superficial ones. That damage to the muscles is what makes us sore after a massage. Usually that happens when a therapist moves too quickly or too hard or both, through the layers of muscles. Don’t let yourself be injured. Always feed back to your therapist if the pressure or technique is uncomfortable or if you feel sore after your massage. We gain information from this feedback so we can be more effective for you. Please don’t let a therapist tell you “It’s normal” or “It’s expected” to be sore after a massage. Sometimes it can be the case but not under normal circumstances. “No pain No Gain” does not apply to safe and effective bodywork, even if you LIKE that pain.

Most of the time when we are looking for true deep tissue massage, the pain or dysfunction is in the deeper, smaller muscle groups which are responsible for our fine motor skills, posture, balance and movement. The deeper muscles are usually much smaller than the superficial ones and can tire from repetitive motions. That’s not to say that pain and dysfunction can’t come from the larger, more superficial muscles.

The Trapezius (Traps), Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) and Pectoralis Major (pecs) for example are our most superficial muscles in relation to back, neck and shoulder movement. They are great offenders in pain and dysfunction. They are large and exert heavy generalized pulls. Deep Tissue Massage is not needed for these groups but you may prefer heavy pressure to counter-act the immense pull they exert. A well-educated therapist knows that you must meet and then slightly exceed the strain in order to effect a change in the muscle tension. Broad pressure and strokes are most effective for generalized release. This therapist will also know that the muscle balance between front and back must be managed properly. Clients and students of massage are frequently surprised to discover that most upper back and neck pain is actually coming from overly tight (over-active) pectoralis muscles in the front of the chest, not the back which is Taught like a rubber band when stretched. Those muscles are over stretched and weak (under-active).

Once that knowledge is understood by the therapist and acknowledged by a compliant client, well-chosen techniques can be applied to either stimulate a weakened muscle and sedate an overactive muscle to create a balanced push-pull relationship around a joint. Knowing which muscles are playing a game of tug-of-war is an educated approach to bodywork. This application of skill and knowledge defines the line between deep tissue and Neuromuscular Therapy. Both have similar cross-overs but Neuro-muscular work requires a deeper understanding of structure and function and usually a step up set of techniques.

Other types of bodywork we frequently hear that are buzz-words, therapeutically speaking, frequently fall under the neuromuscular scope, but not always. An example is “Pressure point” or “trigger point”. They are in a western therapy definition, points within a muscle, either superficial or deep that have bunched together and crowded nerve function of created adhesions through the fascial to other structures. Specifically placed pressure can be used to stimulate or sedate the highly active or painful areas in the tissues to restore balance. They are a part of neuro-muscular balance, very generalized in definition.

This last statement opens grounds for discussion of the fascial system (Myofascial Release) and non-western therapies such as Thai Massage and Shiatsu. Pressure points are used with slightly different theory and application and will give rise for a later post. Hope to share with you again soon.

Barbara G White

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