Pain. It’s a common reason people shy away from sports massage, but should it actually hurt?
The answer is: Not necessarily
Laura Harris: 12/01/2018
This is where I could go into lots of detail about pain science, the human brain, evolution, age, gender etc but that complicates things. If you would like to read about pain science look out for my upcoming article.
The truth is, it entirely depends on you; How you feel when you walk in the door of your massage therapist’s building, what it is you’re having massaged, conditioning, what training you’ve done or not done recently, or your mood (yes even that makes a difference). Everyone’s a little bit different and I’m sure you have heard of the term “pain threshold” before. This is the level when a person starts to feel pain and it differs from person to person. That’s also why your therapist will consistently ask you if the pressure during a massage is ‘OK’. If your therapist isn’t asking this, then make sure you’re vocal about how your treatment feels (or find a new therapist)!
A good sports massage therapist will also quantify your feedback on a scale of 0 – 10 when using the techniques that are a little more intense, and they shouldn’t go above a 7 or perhaps 8 out of 10. This is the type of pain we often refer to as a “good pain”, mild discomfort that somehow you just know is doing you good. It’s the level of pain that becomes contradictory to the brain. The brain is getting sensory input that tells it something is painful however, the body also feels benefits from this level of pressure and therefore deems it to be good and therapeutic.
So Why Might I Feel Pain During a Sports Massage?
If you become injured your body lays down collagen fibres in order to repair damaged tissue. It tends to lay them down in a very haphazard manner which can cause these fibres to become ‘stuck’ either to muscle fibres or even to fascia. This causes restrictions in movement and can cause muscles to fatigue earlier than they should, or would normally.
During your sports massage, you may have a series of techniques used on you depending on why you are there. Some of these are intentionally injurious because they need to be in order to be effective. Techniques such as frictions, soft tissue release or stripping are designed to break apart fibres that have become adhered to one another, and/or scar tissue to allow them to realign in the same direction as normal muscle fibres. These and other similar techniques can also be used for muscles that have hypertonicity or feel “tight”. Often these spots of tightness can also be more sensitive to pressure and touch so again can feel more painful when they are being worked on than other areas of the body. You also may have been in pain or discomfort before your treatment for many other reasons which can lead to you being more sensitive to pressure and touch.
Think of it as a means to an end. You’re in a bit of pain for some reason or another, you come to see a therapist who may or may not subject you to a little more pain, but then the end result is reduced pain, greater range of motion, improvement to the state of scar tissue and improved recovery. Pain, Justified.
Just to be clear though, the goal for any therapist isn’t to put you in as much pain as possible. We do what we can to reduce your aches, pains and ‘niggles’ by using some techniques which can be injurious, but only if we need to, and always within your personal pain threshold. The human body is an incredibly resilient thing, which means it sometimes needs some tough love to get back on top form again.
What If I’m Not Injured?
If you go to see your sports massage therapist for more of a maintenance massage session when you don’t seem to have any perceived tightness or aches anywhere, then there is no reason for your massage to hurt. There are a lot of benefits to lighter strokes and techniques which can help you relax, often treat the body as a whole rather than specific muscle groups and can help improve your mood; therefore, also potentially increasing your pain threshold.
The Take Away Message
The most important things to take away from this are; Sports massage shouldn’t necessarily hurt but if it does the pain should always be justified, and that communication is key. Always discuss with your sports massage therapist any lifestyle changes, changes to your training etc so they can tailor your session to you. During any treatment, always be sure to speak up if a certain technique hurts too much or even just doesn’t feel quite right for you. It’s your time, and you want to make sure you get the most out of it.