Intro to Deep Tissue Massage

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

While deep tissue massage isn't *actually* magic, it does have some pretty magical benefits.


What is Deep Tissue Massage?

Deep tissue massage involves applying firm pressure and slow strokes to reach deeper layers of muscle and fascia (the connective tissue surrounding muscles). It's used for chronic aches and pain and contracted areas such as a stiff neck and upper back, low back pain, leg muscle tightness, and sore shoulders.


Potential Benefits

Deep tissue massage usually focuses on a specific problem, such as chronic muscle pain, injury rehabilitation, and the following conditions:

  • Low back pain

  • Limited mobility

  • Recovery from injuries (e.g. whiplash, falls)

  • Repetitive strain injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Postural problems

  • Muscle tension in the hamstrings, glutes, IT band, legs, quadriceps, rhomboids, upper back

  • Osteoarthritis pain

  • Sciatica 

  • Piriformis syndrome

  • Tennis elbow

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Upper back or neck pain

Not all of these benefits have been scientifically proven, but according to Consumer Reports magazine, 34,000 people ranked deep tissue massage more effective in relieving osteoarthritis pain than physical therapy, exercise, prescription medications, chiropractic, acupuncture, diet, glucosamine, and over-the-counter drugs.


Deep tissue massage also received a top ranking for fibromyalgia pain. People often notice an improved range of motion immediately after a deep tissue massage.


If you are interested in a massage to prevent sports injury, address sport-specific concerns, or to help with muscle recovery after sports, consider getting a sports massage.



What to Expect

While some of the techniques used in deep tissue may feel the same as those used in Swedish massage therapy, deep tissue massage isn't a stronger version of a Swedish massage.


Deep tissue massage techniques are used to break up scar tissue and physically break down muscle "knots" or adhesions (bands of painful, rigid tissue) that can disrupt circulation and cause pain, limited range of motion, and inflammation.


At the beginning of a deep tissue massage, lighter pressure is generally applied to warm up and prepare the muscles. Specific techniques are then applied. Common techniques include:

  • Stripping: Deep, gliding pressure along the length of the muscle fibers using the elbow, forearm, knuckles, and thumbs.

  • Friction: Pressure applied across the grain of a muscle to release adhesions and realign tissue fibers.

Massage therapists may use fingertips, knuckles, hands, elbows, and forearms during a deep tissue massage. You may be asked to breathe deeply as the massage therapist works on tense areas.


After the massage, you may feel some stiffness or soreness, but it should subside within a day or so. Be sure to contact your massage therapist if you have concerns or if you feel pain after having a massage.


Drinking water after the massage may help to flush the metabolic waste from the tissues.


Do Deep Tissue Massages Hurt?

At certain times during the massage, you may feel some discomfort or even some pain as the massage therapist works on areas where there are adhesions or scar tissue. Pain isn't necessarily good, and it's not a sign that the massage will be effective. In fact, your body may tense up in response to pain, making it harder for the therapist to reach deeper muscles.


You should always tell your massage therapist if you feel pain during the massage. The therapist can adjust the technique or further prep the tissues if the superficial muscles are tense.


Side Effects and Precautions

Deep tissue massage may not be safe for people with blood clots (e.g. thrombophlebitis or deep vein thrombosis), due to the risk that they may become dislodged. If you have blood clots or are at risk of forming blood clots, it's essential that you consult your doctor first.


If you have blood clots or are at risk of forming blood clots, it's essential that you consult your doctor before getting a deep tissue massage. If you've had recent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or have another medical condition, it's wise to check with your doctor before starting massage therapy. Some people with osteoporosis should avoid the deeper pressure of this type of massage.


If you have any condition, it's important to consult your primary care provider first to find out what type they recommend. For example, people with certain conditions, such as ankylosing spondylitis, may not be able to tolerate deep tissue massage.

By Cathy Wong | Reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD

Originally published November, 18 2018 at VeryWellHealth.com.

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