Is your deep tissue massage actually doing more harm to your body than good?

Before I could complete my muscle therapy program and take my licensing exam, I had to complete 65 "hands on" massage hours in our student clinic. In the beginning, I was both nervous and very excited to finally be able to work with people I didn't know, with issues I wasn't familiar with. From Swedish techniques, to therapeutic massage, to deep tissue, I was honing my skills and really making a difference! My clients pretty much put their trust in me and together we made treatment plans to bring them relief. I had some great sessions and that really taught me a lot. It was pretty much smooth sailing…until my appointment with"CFG" (short for "Cross Fit Guy."). CFG was the poster child for all things highly intense. That's how he liked his workouts, and as I quickly found out, also how he liked to be massaged. He walked in the door, introduced himself, flexed his hypertonic trapezius then said, " I want you to apply the strongest pressure you can give me!"

It had been years since CFG's last massage and he had put in countless hours at the gym (or "box" as it is known in the CrossFit world) using functional movement to target specific muscle groups aimed at sculpting his already impressive physique. He broke down his regimen and told me how he constantly pushed himself beyond his threshold to achieve his goals. No surprise, he was most proud of his upper body, specifically his traps. He started to lament about having muscle soreness that usually lasted about 48 hours, then just as quickly admitted that despite it he was back at the gym within the next day or so. As he talked I took a mental note of his rock solid muscles, elevated & protracted shoulders, as well as his overall posture. Based on my assessment and our conversation, I was scared to give him the pressure he'd asked for!

I felt like I was stuck between his upper trap and a hard place! On the one hand, I knew it was my job to give the client what he'd requested. On the other hand, as a student learning musculoskeletal anatomy, physiology, and several massage modalities, I knew that Deep Tissue massage was probably not what CFG needed at this moment. Given the repeat overwork and overuse of his already tensed muscles I was certain he'd receive more benefit from the highly effective, yet extremely light touch of Myofascial Release (aka Myo). I took a moment to attempt to get him to consider some other options, but failed to take into account his love of all things highly intense. He insisted on the Deep Tissue massage so I stepped out the room to allow him privacy to undress. Once he was settled on the table, I re-entered the room and we got to work. Let's just say less than 10 minutes into the massage CFG decided he was open to learning a little more about the Myo I had been talking him about.  

In order to explain why Myofascial Release can be so effective in situations where muscles are extremely tense (like CFG's) or painful when touched, you have to know a little bit about the anatomical makeup of our bodies. Directly under our skin, connecting to literally EVERYTHING else inside of us is something called fascia (pronounced fash-uhaccording to me or ˈfaSH(ē)ə according to Webster). If you've ever taken the skin off a piece of raw chicken you've seen the thin, impossible to tear, filmy stuff left behind. That, my friend, is fascia. It's many functions include protecting the body (it creates that "suit of armor" effect you feel when your muscles are tight), regulating our temperature, connecting all the body's systems, providing structure/support/movement, employing immune and inflammatory responses, holding muscle memory, and so on. Fascia coats and lines our organs, surrounds each individual muscle cell as well as the entire muscle itself, forms actual structures within our body (i.e. the IT Band is made up of layers of fascia), wraps around bones, and is basically a 3-D web with no apparent beginning or end. 

 To help you conceptualize what that means, imagine one of those cotton spider web decorations you tend to see at Halloween. If you were to stick your finger anywhere in the web and wind it around you'd notice it begin to stretch thin from every direction and get thicker near the area closest to your finger. To put that in the context of the human body, the areas stretching out represent muscles throughout your body and that denser area near your finger would be adhesive tissue (maybe even a trigger point and/or scar tissue). While traditional massage is intended to address the muscles and soft tissue using the client's preferred pressure, Myo almost always uses the lightest touch possible to access the fascial layer. Since fascia affixes everything in the body, once the massage therapist is able to make a connection, it is possible to affect tissue, muscles, and structures very deep within. Often bringing relief in areas seemingly unrelated to the where the pain was originally felt.  

Myofascial Release is a massage modality most often indicated for people who suffer from pain (chronic, acute and even severe) because of its gentle non-invasive application. It is effective because, if done correctly, it doesn't create pain for the body to react to. Thus breaking the pain cycle. People with Tendonitis, Fibromyalgia, Carpal Tunnel, Osteoarthritis, Whiplash, Rheumatoid Arthritis, recovering from injury/surgery, Fibrosis, Neuropathy (in some cases), sprains/strains, Lupus, and countless other degenerative and/or autoimmune related ailments have benefitted from incorporating Myo sessions in their wellness routine. 

In the case of CFG, he told me he "Felt like a new man!" when he got off the table. I couldn't have agreed more!  The same muscles that literally kicked me out as I applied the Deep Tissue strokes, willingly let me in when I lightened my touch. His elevated and protracted shoulders visibly dropped, looked a lot less uncomfortable, and felt way more pliable by the end of our session. I couldn't help but notice he even stood a little taller than when he first came in. The biggest shock for him, however, was how much his flexibility and range of motion had increased in the last 60 minutes. He was so pleased couldn't wait to get to the gym to test them out!




***DISCLAIMER*** Since fascia holds muscle memory, Myofascial Release can have an emotional effect on the client. Crying, anger, uncontrollable laughter, and any other emotion can occur during sessions (and up to 24-48 hours post treatment) and are perfectly normal. It is also not uncommon for parts of the body to start to "unwind," moving independent of the client and with no provocation from the therapist. Though Myofascial Release is extremely effective, results are relative to each client and, as such, no outcome can be guaranteed. The client reserves the right to pause or stop treatment at any time during any session.