These are just some of the common refrains I hear daily in my practice. Anyone who has experienced massage therapy has probably had a painful treatment or two. It’s typical for people to tolerate a barrage of painful stimuli for an hour and then brag about how much pain their massage therapist inflicts upon them. And most people who want a ‘therapeutic’ massage would only consider seeing someone that gives painful treatments.
Is it necessary to endure a punishing or distressful treatment to get the desired results? In short: maybe not.
There is a common belief that if massage isn’t painful it can’t be therapeutic. This is not surprising when you hear people talk about how much better they feel after receiving their weekly thrashing. And, what about all the different tools available for massage? They look more like tools for performing some sort of medieval torture. Almost everyone who has seen a massage therapist, physiotherapist or chiropractor has been told they should be rolling on a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, or a golf ball. All of these practices have an extremely high ‘ouch factor’. And therapists can become famous (or infamous) for the excruciating treatments they perform.
The belief that massage needs to be painful has permeated our culture and this belief is not going anywhere soon.
Here’s how I feel: there’s good pain and there’s bad pain. The line between them can be a bit blurry and it’s not always easy for therapists to distinguish between the two. Everyone’s sensitivity to pain varies, so the level of pressure that may produce good pain for one may result in the opposite for another. This is why communication between therapist and patient is paramount.
Anytime a patient recoils, tenses or cries out in response to a technique, they are probably experiencing bad pain and the therapist should lighten up. When this happens, the body is protecting itself. The nervous system senses a threat and nothing good will come of it.
Good pain is an oxymoron. Maybe we should come up with a new name for it because pain by the very definition is ‘an unpleasant experience’. This feeling of good pain is anything but unpleasant and, in fact, it can be downright soothing and comforting. This is the feeling people seek when they come for massage.
Massage treatments don’t need to hurt or cause any discomfort. I’m not saying massage should be light and fluffy as this doesn’t satisfy anyone. To be effective, massage needs only to provide novel stimuli for the nervous system. Giving the patient the dramatic sensation of what is truly needed to make a change will produce therapeutic results. That may mean lingering on a sore spot to take the patient to the edge of discomfort – delivering the good pain. Providing the feeling of an itch that has been scratched and sending that positive message to the brain. This is where the nervous system really takes notice, in the space just beyond the good pain but not yet at the bad pain.
When the nervous system takes notice, good things can happen. It is here that our therapy should be focused, because it’s the nervous system that controls the levels of tension in our muscles. The only way to affect change is through this system and we can do this simply by changing the input it receives. A change in input can change the output.
If you’ve tried massage and been unsatisfied because the treatment was either too aggressive to be of any comfort or too light to feel like anything was done, I encourage you to try again. There is someone out there who will find the sweet spot, the place where good things can happen.