Productive Pain

A shy client asked me after a short chair massage: “Was that supposed to be… painful?”

Well, it depends on what your definition of pain is.

Well, it depends on a lot of things, actually.

There’s a well-known maxim describing the direct relationship between discomfort and success that can easily illustrate the connection between pain during a massage and the subsequent release of muscle tension. But is it true? Is there no gain, no long lasting benefit of massage, without first causing pain?

Not necessarily. But again, it depends.

I can give the same massage – focused work on uncomfortable trigger points – to two different people, and only one of them will consider the massage painful. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one client’s muscle tension is worse than the other’s, just that they each perceive it differently. Some will feel the massage (or at least parts of it) as painful, full stop. Others will feel the massage as bothersome, maybe painful… but for a purpose. A means to an end. Productive pain.

At the start of an intensive trigger point treatment (that continued weekly for 2 months), one of my clients likened my massages to medical procedures. She grimaced and flinched through each one, and while she certainly felt better afterwards, the massages themselves weren’t something she looked forward to. But when I shared this metaphor with another client of mine (who was seeing me for the same reasons), she merely shrugged. The massages weren’t painful – they were useful.

As a massage therapist, I’m not looking to cause my clients pain. But I am looking to relieve my clients’ muscle tension, and sometimes pain is the conscious response.

When a client tells me that my pressure is causing pain, sometimes I’ll back off and use a lighter touch. Other times, though, I’ll just instruct them to take deep breaths and distract themselves from the discomfort. I’m not just trying to make my clients occasionally suffer, I promise. Rather, there’s a tangible difference in the muscles in each circumstance.

Pain can be a good thing. Sometimes pain is the signal sent from the muscles to the brain that says ouch, that really hurts, stop doing it. That pain is how you save yourself from injury. Other times, though, pain is just the response from an oversensitive muscle that shouldn’t be reacting the way it is. This pain is a sign that something in the muscle is not right. In a broad sense, that’s the distinction I can feel during the massage.

So with all this discussion, what am I trying to say? When is comes to massage, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish productive pain from injurious pain. There’s a thin line between “hurts so good” and “hurts so much I want to punch you in the face”. While some amount of pain may be necessary (depending on how much muscle tension you have), don’t assume that all pain is good pain. Don’t be afraid to communicate with your therapist so that you can have the most relaxing and productive massage possible.

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