Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Ask most folks about deep tissue massage, and you're likely to hear one of two things:
"OMG YES! Hurts so good!" or "Oh. No, not for me. Too painful."
So, what should a deep tissue massage feel like? Should it hurt? Is that a sign that it's effective, or harmful?
The term 'deep tissue' is often mis-interpreted. Most of us associate it with a very deep, mostly painful form of massage that involves a lot of pressure and probably shedding a few tears.
Therapeutically, it actually means something entirely different. It refers to the level of tissue the massage therapist is effecting, which may or may not require the use of a lot of pressure or the presence of pain.
The 'deep' tissues are those that aren't at the surface level, but rather the tissue structures that lie beneath and interact with deeper elements of a person's body. If you've ever had an abdominal massage (which is often quite delicate and gentle work), that's technically deep tissue as your organs are indeed 'deep' compared to the ab muscles that overlie them. When a therapist is ever so slowly sinking into your psoas muscle through your abdomen, that's also deep tissue (and often quite sensitive, without the need for much pressure). Gently working the attachments of the diaphragm on the underside of the ribcage is another example of deep tissue work.
To answer my own questions then: the experience of a deep tissue massage will vary based on your body's sensitivity, the area being worked, and the technique the therapist is using to address it, among other factors. It won't always hurt, though most often it will feel uncomfortable or sensitive, if not sometimes painful. And whether pain exists isn't itself indicative of whether the technique is helpful or harmful. Most clients report a difference in "good" pain and "bad" pain. "Good" pain often feels like it's productive, like something is releasing or changing under the pressure even though there's also pain. "Bad" pain just feels, well, bad; it may feel sharp or more pronounced than "good" pain. Sometimes it feels 'unsafe' rather than productive.
This may take some practice learning to distinguish between the two, so remember to communicate with your therapist during your sessions. Always speak up if you're unsure of whether the experience you're having is beneficial or not, or simply to inform your therapist of the experience you're having. Massage is a personal, individualized experience every time. So don't be afraid to ask questions, make comments, or relay information to your therapist.