Why Massage Can Occasionally Hurt a Client and When It Is Not Okay

Updated on May 11, 2018
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Leeann Hysaw has earned 11 years of experience in massage therapy having graduated from Lincoln Technical Institute in 2007.

Contributing Factors to Pain

There seems to be a general belief regarding massage that goes something along the lines of “if it doesn’t hurt, it's not helping”. The idea insinuates that if you're not experiencing pain during a massage, then it isn’t working out the knots in your muscles since that process is expected to hurt. Many people believe this to be the case and they are right, in a way. Some techniques and certain trigger points and pressures will hurt as a natural result of the work but there is more to massage than just that, and a softer approach can often be just as beneficial. So why would it hurt in the first place? This answer is dependent on different factors, for instance, how long it has been since your last massage, the pressure you have requested and the type of massage you are receiving. Each of these can contribute to whether your massage causes you discomfort and can determine if you're going to be sore later.

Normal Causes of Pain

The largest contributing factor to pain and discomfort during massage is the massage itself, but this does not always mean that the massage therapist is doing something wrong. In many cases, the discomfort comes from more benign sources. Some clients, for instance, go a long time between massages. This builds up acid in the muscle tissue, and when it is released, it can sometimes cause soreness until the lymphatic system moves it out of the body. The longer a person goes between massages, the more of these nasty particles build up in the tissues and therefore, the sorer one might feel after it has been pushed out. It does, of course, need to come out to prevent damage to your tissues, however, please keep in mind that it's recommended that this take place over several sessions to reduce the risk of discomfort since everything being released at once can be a lot for a body to handle.

Another aspect that may cause pain or soreness is the pressure being used during massage and the type of massage in general. As mentioned previously, many people have the mistaken belief that if they want to work knots out of their muscles, then they have to suffer through deep tissue massage to force the knots to release in one session and that this process is naturally painful. This is not the case. Some of these points of stuck tissue fibers can just as easily be released with gentle pressure. This is especially true for ones lying on the upper layers of tissue that do not require delving deep to reach them. Deeper knots, however, or ones that have been building for some time, may hurt a lot when palpated.

Knots that linger often have more acids built up inside them and can hurt or ache for days after they have been released which is not unexpected. A person must consider taking on these larger or older trigger points over several sessions as opposed to trying to bang them out in one go. These are things to keep in mind to plan accordingly before, during and after a session so you can get the results you are seeking with the least amount of discomfort possible.

Deeper Isn’t Always Better

“…many people have the mistaken belief that if they want to work knots out of their muscles then they have to suffer through deep tissue massage to force the knots to release in one session and that this process is naturally painful. This is not the case.”

Identifying Bad Pain

Have you ever heard the expression, “hurts so good”? This is tossed around a lot in the massage world, and it is something we massage therapists hear on a regular basis from our clients. The idea is that sometimes a trigger point, knot, or tight muscle is really itching to be released and when a strong pressure, deep tissue or trigger point works, or any other massage technique that normally elicits a pain response is applied, the pain is welcomed by the muscle. It’s almost perceived as a release to the body, and the pain is transformed into a nearly pleasurable sensation. It is like an itch that needed to be scratched so badly that you couldn’t tell if it hurt or felt good once the scratch finally came. This pleasurable pain feeling is common during massage, but it also leads no many misconceptions.

This idea that the pain is good makes people think massage should hurt and that, that is okay. It is not always the case. This “hurts so good” aspect only works when it actually does feel somewhat good. If you are only feeling pain, then you must speak up to your therapist. How much pain is too much is determined by your own pain threshold. Every person is different, so let your therapist know. They do not have the instinctive ability to know what everyone in the world considers a good pain or a bad pain. Do not be afraid to speak up. If you feel only pain and no release, if you are beginning to feel hot or sweaty along with the pain or notice you are holding your breath through it, then the pressure must be adjusted. Trying to grin and bear it is only going to cause you more problems and possibly even leave you in more pain then you went into the massage with. This is never a therapist’s goal.

Speaking Up

“This 'hurts so good' aspect only works when it actually does feel somewhat good. If you are only feeling pain, then you must speak up to your therapist.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for What You Want

Pain during massage is elicited naturally due to pressure on fibers that are stressed and sometimes injured. Soreness that occurs after the massage is over, sometimes up to three days later, is also another natural process as the body and the lymphatic system works overtime to remove released acids, often called toxins by some therapists, from your system. These discomforts can be normal, but they are also a part of a choice you can make. If you do not want to feel this discomfort, you do not have to. Do not be afraid to ask your therapist to lighten their pressure or avoid points that are especially painful. You also can request them to avoid trigger points or deep tissue techniques or limit the use of thumbs, knuckles or elbows. If you have asked, but the pressure still seems to bother you, you may need a lighter therapist. Not all can therapists perform the same levels of pressure, and it is perfectly fine to seek someone else that better fits your needs.

Another way to avoid massage discomfort is to book a massage often, at least once a month, to prevent the muscles from filling up with the acids that cause after-massage soreness and to keep trigger points and knots small and less painful to the touch. If you really do not mind the pain and were just wondering why it hurts in general, remember that pain is different for everyone and something that feels good to some may really hurt another. Continue to keep your therapist informed about how you are feeling to prevent injury during massage. You should always be able to leave a massage feeling better than when you went in.

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