You arrive at your deep tissue appointment with the “No Pain, No Gain” mentality, readying yourself to probably shed a few tears on the massage table and wake up the next morning feeling like you unsuccessfully tried to outrun Tyrannosaurus Rex. Deep tissue should hurt right? If there is no pain, nothing is happening, yes? Thankfully, it’s a pretty common misconception that a deep tissue massage should hurt. Now, I’m not talking about the “hurts sooo good” feeling, I’m talking about the “bone crushing, sweat dripping, why am I paying this person” pain level that most people (and therapists) associate with a deep tissue massage with.
Your nervous system is divided into two types—your parasympathetic nervous system and your sympathetic nervous system. You’ve probably already heard of your sympathetic nervous system more commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” system. When your body perceives a dangerous or stressful stimuli—in this case severe pain—your body automatically goes into protection mode, whether you want it to or not. Your body dumps a heavy amount of adrenaline into your system, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, your airways relax allowing you to take deep breaths, blood is directed from your digestive organs to your muscles, your muscles contract, and you start to sweat. Every part of you that you can’t control is preparing you to fly off the massage table. Sounds relaxing right? Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know the difference between a bear attack and a just plain painful massage elbow that finds a bone, and once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it takes some time to calm down. Basically, you have just paid X amount of money to stress your body out, and have a therapist dig as deeply as they can into a contracted muscle. You end up leaving the massage worse off than where you started.
We obviously don’t want the sympathetic nervous system to join you on the massage table! Enter in the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your “rest and digest” system. This is where the magic happens! No massage is truly successful until you turn this system on. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system decreases your heart rate, blood is directed to organs for digestion, muscles relax, breathing slows and your body decreases energy usage. A relaxed muscle is much easier to work on, and far more therapeutic. In simpler terms, your body is giving the therapist permission to work. Alright, so where do we go from here?