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.
How Does Deep Tissue Massage Work?
While some of the strokes 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.
Deep tissue massage usually focuses on a specific problem, such as chronic muscle pain, injury rehabilitation, and the following conditions:
Low back pain
Recovery from injuries (e.g. whiplash, falls)
Repetitive strain injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
Muscle tension in the hamstrings, glutes, IT band, legs, quadriceps, rhomboids, upper back
Upper back or neck pain
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.
Do Deep Tissue Massages Hurt?
At certain times during the massage, you may feel some discomfort as the massage therapist works on areas where there are adhesions or scar tissue.
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.
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.
What Can I Expect?
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.
The main focuses of Swedish massage are increasing blood flow and circulation, assisting in draining the lymphatic system to support immune system function, and creating a more relaxed state of being. Unobstructed blood flow and lymph drainage both help keep the body in good working order and are considered essential in maintaining the body’s defenses against illness and disease.
What Is Swedish Massage?
Swedish massage is focused primarily on the body and, therefore, is a more physical approach to relieving stress, aches, pains, and tension. One benefit of Swedish massage is its ability to relax the mind-brain connection—the mind being the energy and thoughts, and the brain being the physical matter. This is thought to contribute to a more balanced, stimulated, and integrated system. A healthy mind-brain connection may also help facilitate better physical health.
What Is a Swedish Massage Session Like?
Swedish massage may be gentle, seem more aggressive in its approach, or something in-between. As a client, you can request light, medium, or intense pressure and ask the practitioner to adjust their touch accordingly. In a Swedish massage the client’s joints and muscles are compressed and stretched. This can cause an immediate release of energy that might cause the skin to flush. Clients might also experience a few temporary aches as the body readjusts itself, depending on their level of flexibility and any current physical ailments. In massage, areas of stress and pain can act as blockages to the body’s circulation, energy flow, and overall well-being.
During a Swedish Massage Session:
To enhance the therapeutic benefits, your practitioner will likely incorporate the following into your Swedish massage session:
Oils, balms, herbal applications, or heat may be applied to the skin to calm the body and mind. With these external applications, the body begins to release stress and is more receptive to receive the massage technique’s benefits.
Soft music is often used to further assist in relaxation.
Stroking in smooth movements, kneading to loosen muscles, rubbing or friction with the practitioner using both hands back and forth in opposite directions, and striking (tapping or chopping the body with fingers or hands) are all used in combination. These movements help relax the body, increase circulation, and improve drainage in the lymphatic system.
What Are the Health Benefits of Swedish Massage?
Swedish massage helps the body heal itself by physically manipulating and stimulating the body’s circulatory and lymphatic systems. This works to energize and help eliminate toxins in the body. Also, through Swedish massage, a high level of relaxation can often be achieved, and this relaxation can help prepare the body to act as an open, receptive vessel in which healing can more rapidly occur.
Studies have provided evidence that Swedish massage may be beneficial for specific conditions such as arthritis in the knees, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, blood pressure, immune system issues, severe headaches and migraines, and fibromyalgia.
A study by the University of Miami Medical School also determined that massage therapy can have significant mental health benefits. Participants in a five-week massage experiment reported fewer symptoms of depression, lowered anxiety, and better overall social function when compared to a group that received only standard medical treatment.