Deep tissue massage and relaxation massage: What’s the difference?

February 14th, 2019 by Phil Brown

At Muscle and Movement Health, the basis of the hands-on manual therapy we provide is deep tissue massage. This term encompasses a range of massage techniques that are used for therapeutic and rehabilitative effect on the client being cared for.

Although massage and other complementary manual therapy modes have risen in popularity in the last few years, many people who ask about my business are not aware of any difference between a basic massage for relaxation and a deep tissue massage. That said, these treatments share the same basic characteristics, but also differ in ways that may make the difference for you should you be considering massage treatment.

All massage is beneficial

First of all, getting a massage is always beneficial. The therapeutic effects of a massage can include stress and tension relief, reduction of blood pressure, stimulation of lymphatic drainage and local circulation and an increased sense of well being. The effect of even light touch therapy can influence muscle tone and stress levels profoundly. Indeed, many of my own deep tissue treatments are framed by touch and basic massage techniques that help relax the client in preparation for deeper work.

Deeper down…

While many basic massage sessions will provide a firm, relaxing massage, there is often a limit to the depth of work given. This may be due to the masseur’s remit of providing a full body massage within a set time, or simply the style of massage being practised. Deep tissue work often begins on a firm, general level before sinking deeper into underlying tissues and deeper muscle fibres. The skilled practitioner is able “read” the tissues with their hands, seeking for the point in the treatment where more superficial muscles and tissues soften and “melt”;  allowing access to deeper muscles.

Targetted release

A full body massage can be a real treat. Relaxing under the hands of a skilled masseuse as they work from feet to head can be a GREAT way zone out and may be just what is needed. However, a full body massage involves alot of ground coverage and there is not usually enough time to work into areas that may require more focused work.  Rather than spending 60 minutes working through the whole body in sequence, the therapist may spend some time working through the lower limb generally, before carrying out valuable, focused work into a tight, restricted left knee or ankle. That way, the client benefits greatly from having specific restrictions eased.

Positions please!

Many clients will be surprised at their first session of deep tissue massage when the therapist asks them to move from the classic prone-on-the-couch position.  Experienced deep tissue therapists may work with their clients in a sidelying position, as well as seated and even standing at times. Access to certain muscle groups is easier and more effective in sidelying position. For example, working on the side of the trunk, ribs and lateral edge of the scapula or shoulder blade is very effective from the side.

No pain no……?

The old adage is not true. Pain is not always necessary in a deep tissue massage treatment. Where pain is involved, this should be a “good” pain. The client should be able to easily recognise from this type of pain that restricted or short tissues are being loosened and lengthened. Once a client is aware of the reason for this kind of pain, then there can be satisfaction and enjoyment in the process of deeper work.  I also believe the skilled therapist is able to “persuade” deeper tissues into relaxing and ”melting” without unnecessary levels of pain.

Slow down

Deep tissue massage can be a much slower form of massage than a traditional relaxation massage. The therapist will tend to sink into the tissues and find the level of contact they want before moving obliquely through the fibres, at a speed that allows the tissues to soften and give.

Less lotion

While many masseurs use lotion or oil to avoid too much friction when carrying out massage, deep tissue massage actually needs friction between the therapist’s tools (hands, elbows, forearm) and the client’s tissues. It is important for the therapist (and client) to be able to grip the tissues while at the same time creating enough energy and movement to move “through” the muscle fibres and connective tissue.  Most experienced deep tissue therapists will use only a little lotion or wax.  Some use only a little water to dampen their hands.

Whatever form of massage you choose for yourself, take the time to discuss with the therapist how they work and what you should expect. Remember, it’s your body and your time and dime!  In this article I have outlined what I see as the main differences between what I would call a massage for relaxation and a deep tissue massage.  However, it is also important to remember that all forms of massage have strong therapeutic effects. What works for some people may not for others. Sometimes, a light touch and soothing music is exactly what is needed.  At other times, deep, targetted soft tissue therapy is the order of the day!

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