What Is Deep Tissue Massage?

what is deep tissue massage
What is deep tissue massage

Deep Tissue Massage is a therapeutic massage technique that accesses deep layers of muscle and the connective tissue that binds them together.  This technique is often used for chronic pain conditions that formed following an injury or have resulted from repetitive stress injury or poor posture.


Why Deep Tissue Massage Massage Works

Our bodies are made up of three main components:  bone, muscle, and connective tissue.  In simple terms, bones provide our basic form, muscles are what move our bones around, and connective tissue holds everything together.

Connective tissue exists in dozens of different forms in our bodies.  Everything from blood to bone to muscles to fat are connective tissues, technically speaking.  However, in massage we classify things more according to what they do, rather than how they are classified scientifically.

So, from a massage perspective, when we talk about “connective tissue,” we are most often referring to something called “fascia.”  If you have ever prepared a chicken for dinner, you have seen fascia.  It is that white, web-like substance that holds the skin to the muscle, holds the muscles to one another, and binds the muscle to the bone.  Our bodies are made the same way.

Fascia is necessary for us to function.  If we didn’t have it, everything would just slide down our skeletons and we’d look more like a blob than a person.  However, fascia can also be bad.  If we always find ourselves sitting or standing in the same exact way, then our fascia grows into that particular shape.  That is why when we go to stretch that we realize we feel really tight and our bodies won’t do what we expect them to do.

Likewise, when we become injured and cannot move a body part normally, fascia grows around that body part to hold it in its new shape.  This is why it is often painful to begin using that body part again because we have to break up the fascia to regain the original range of motion we once had.

Fascia that has grown together in places and ways that are unnatural are called “adhesions.”  In addition to limiting mobility, adhesions can inhibit circulation and cause inflammation and pain.  Painful adhesions usually happen following surgery or an injury.  Sometimes, adhesions can cause radiating pain in a seemingly unrelated area, and sometimes we don’t even realize that the adhesions are there until we are freed of them.

Getting back to the description of Deep Tissue Massage, massage therapists use special techniques to manipulate muscles and break up fascial adhesions that are holding a person in an unhealthy posture.  Deep Tissue Massage increases range of motion (mobility) as well as oxygen and blood flow to restricted tissues.

When done properly a person should feel great relief after treatment with Deep Tissue Massage.

Pressure and Technique in Deep Tissue Massage

Many people assume that deep tissue massage means the use of concentrated deep pressure.  This is not necessarily the case.  Deep pressure massage can be found in most massage modalities.  It refers simply to the amount of force the massage therapist uses as opposed to a specific technique.

Deep Tissue Massage is a technique that is used to access deep layers of muscle and the connective tissue that binds them together.  Sometimes this does require more force, but in most cases, the massage therapist will use more moderate pressure to first release the top and middle layers of muscle.  If the muscles above the deeper-lying muscles are relaxed, much less force is needed to access deep muscles.  This technique is usually more comfortable for the client and results in less soreness the next day.

Compared to Swedish massage, Deep Tissue Massage tends to be more focused on problematic areas and can be more intense.  People getting Deep Tissue Massage may find some treatment areas to be tender, but the treatment should not be painful.  Generally, a good massage therapist can feel if he or she has found a sore spot because the body will “guard” that area by tightening muscles to protect it.  By backing off and trying a gentler approach, the therapist is usually able to work in deeper.  If at any time you feel pain, let your massage therapist know.  Good communication with your therapist will get you the best massage results.


What Conditions Can be Treated with Deep Tissue Massage?

  • Extreme Muscle Tension
  • Limited Mobility / Flexibility
  • Chronic Pain
  • Muscle Spasm
  • Postural Problems
  • Fibromyalgia (in some people)
  • Injury
  • Post-surgical Adhesions (see also Scar Tissue Massage)

How Deep Tissue Massage is Performed

Deep Tissue massage is usually performed just like Swedish massage – on a table with sheets.  The person receiving the massage is typically unclothed, (although some people may leave on their underwear), and a sheet and blanket are used to cover the body.  The massage therapist will uncover each section of the body (for example, leg, back, arm) in order to work on it and then cover it again before moving onto the next area.


Where and When Was Deep Tissue Massage Developed?

Deep tissue massage is known to have been used since around the mid-1800’s in North America, which is around the time that Swedish massage made its debut on this side of the globe.  It wasn’t until 1949, however, when a Canadian physiotherapist, Dr. Therese Phimmer, wrote a book entitled Muscles: Your Invisible Bonds in which she outlined the specific techniques she had developed to reverse partial paralysis.

Since that time, deep tissue massage has been used to treat postural problems and injuries.  Deep tissue massage now serves as the foundation for a number of other modalities such as sports massage, myofascial massage, trigger point massage, etc.

Who Should Not Get Deep Tissue Massage?

Deep Tissue Massage is generally safe for most healthy people, provided that they do not have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners.  This form of massage sometimes may cause minor bruising.  While this is unintentional, it does sometimes occur.  People with bleeding disorders would be at risk because of this.

As with Swedish Massage, people with Congestive Heart Failure, kidney disease should get medical clearance before getting Deep Tissue Massage.  Likewise, anyone who has an active infection, whether it be a cold, the flu, or an infected wound should not get a massage.  Not only are colds and flu contagious, but infections can be made worse and/or spread throughout the body through a massage.

Just as with Swedish Massage, anyone who had had a recent injury or who has an injury that will not heal should consult a physician prior to getting a Deep Tissue Massage.  Anyone who has been in a serious accident such as a car crash should wait a minimum of 72 hours prior to getting a massage and have the clearance of a physician.  This is because our bodies often do not show symptoms of severe trauma for 2-3 days post-accident.  A massage could exacerbate the symptoms or cause further injury.


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