Jon Musgrave, Licensed Massage Therapist
Compassionate Structural Bodywork


No Pain, No Pain: Why I Avoid Painful Massage

It's been a long time since I last posted, but this topic has been constantly on my mind during my work these last couple of years. I hear two things regularly from clients: first, that they had a massage in the past that was so painful that they didn't enjoy it and in some cases actually made things worse; and second, that it's okay if it's painful because it has to be painful for massage to be helpful. But is that true? Does massage have to be painful to be effective? Do my clients just have to grit and bear it to get through a massage? The answer is an emphatic NO. In this post, I’ll talk about the specific reasons why I choose to work without pain, and in my next post, I’ll look at the origins and problems of the “No Pain, No Gain” myth.

A Short Bit about your Muscles

To understand why it’s important for massage to be pleasurable and not painful, let’s take a brief look at how your muscles operate. The first thing to know is that the length and tightness each muscle in the body is not arbitrary. Before learning more about the muscles, I probably would have told you that the muscles just were as long/short and tight/loose as they were, end of story. But that's incorrect: the nervous system is actually telling every muscle fiber in your body how long and how tight to be at any particular moment. And the nervous system is sending these signals from a place far below conscious thought. We cannot consciously control this system.

The second thing to understand is that the body's response to pain is for the muscles to contract, which makes them shorter and tighter. This usually happen in the area that we feel the pain, but even if we can manage to keep the muscles in that area to keep from contracting, muscles somewhere else will still contract. If you're experiencing pain, then somewhere your muscles are contracting, probably without you being aware of it.

Which Brings Us to Massage

One of the things that massage seeks to achieve is to lengthen out short muscles and to decrease the tone of muscles that are tight and painful: it should be relaxing, both literally and figuratively. As we saw above, working painfully does the exact opposite, so on a basic level it just doesn't make much sense. However, we do still want to communicate to the body that the current level of shortness and tightness is too much. How can I do that if not through pain?

For most people, a great way to make that communication happen is through what I like to call "therapeutic discomfort." Clients often describe it as "good pain," but I don't like that term, because the body's reaction is so different. Whereas pain causes the mind and the nervous system to withdraw from the work, and causes muscle contractions like I described above, therapeutic discomfort allows the nervous system to stay involved, and actually choose to decrease the amount of standing tension and lengthen the muscle out. Plus the you can actually feel that something is getting better as it's happening, even if it's not 100% pleasant as it's happening. And it leaves you feeling good, which is why you're coming in for a massage at all.

How do you know whether or not you’re working with therapeutic discomfort and not pain? The breath is a great place to look: if you are having trouble breathing, or if you feel like it would be difficult to speak a full sentence, it’s probably too painful. And remember, therapeutic discomfort generally feels good, so if it doesn’t feel good, your therapist is probably working too deeply or too quickly.

I hope this post has helped you understand why I avoid pain in massage. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments below, and I will answer them there so that everyone can see. Yours, Jon