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What does "Deep" mean? How deep tissue massage is different from deep pressure.

The difference between deep tissue massage and "deep" pressure and why knowing the difference could improve your massage experience.

Written by: Vik Wiggins

Thursday, July 20th, 2023

A massage therapist applying trigger point therapy to a client's shoulder
Trigger point therapy is a commonly used technique in deep tissue massage

Have you ever wondered what a deep tissue massage actually is? I mean, we know just from the name that it must be some kind of massage that manipulates deep tissue, and it is. What most of us believe to be deep tissue though, doesn't necessarily mean... deep tissue.

Everybody likes their massage a little different. Some like to walk out feeling like they've been run over by a steam-roller, while others prefer a lighter touch. And every client has a different way of describing that feeling.

A picture of letter blocks spelling "words"
Finding the right words to describe what you are looking for can help improve your over all massage experience.

It's kinda like trying to describe to your doctor about the pain you feel. It's a pretty subjective experience from person to person and the words you use to describe it are the only indication the doctor has to determine what course of action to take. Similarly, matching a client to their ideal massage therapist is much the same. And using the word "deep" is one of the least helpful words you can use.

This is a result of misconceptions in the industry. The technical massage term "deep tissue" became conflated with the subjective use of "deep pressure" and now they are often used interchangeably. But Deep tissue does not mean deep pressure and deep pressure does not mean deep tissue.

A massage therapist applies deep tissue techniques
Therapists using some deep tissue techniques will have a variety of skills to help achieve therapeutic goals.

So what is the difference then?

Deep tissue massage is most likely to be understood by your therapist as a reference to technique. There are many modalities that are determined to be "deep tissue" techniques, but all of them address a specific need in the body. Often this need is expressed with pain, inflammation, tenderness and even decreased blood circulation.

Deep tissue massage techniques offer a relief from these symptoms, addressing the concerns through techniques like: trigger point therapy, myofascial release and passive resistance. Massage styles like Shiatsu, Ashiatsu and Cupping therapy are a few modalities that are often considered to be deep tissue therapies.

The goal of a deep tissue massage is to work different layers of muscle tissue, fascia, tendons, ligaments, etc. to help break up adhesions, release knotted tissues and in some cases, helping to manipulate tissues back into their ideal positions for optimized range of motion. These techniques do require at least moderate pressure, but may use a combination of moderate, firm, and heavy pressure to achieve desired results.

A scale of 1-5 that evaluates pressure levels in massage
Not all therapists can achieve all levels of pressure. In addition, pressure is subjectively experienced and may be defined differently from client to client.

In contrast, deep pressure is better described as "heavy" pressure. Heavy pressure produces a heavy feeling or intensity for the client as it requires most, if not all, of the therapist's body weight and strength to apply.

This type of pressure can be difficult to maintain during a lengthy massage for some therapists. In most cases, therapists wont rely on any one level of pressure entirely, as they have to take not only the client preference into account, but also the body itself. Learning to read what the muscles can and cannot tolerate is an important skill for therapists in order to prevent injury.

You may also notice that your therapist becomes more versatile in their methods as pressure increases. For instance, It is much easier for the therapist to focus more on the use of elbows, forearms, knuckles, or even tools when applying heavy pressure for extended periods of time. This can help prevent therapist injuries, which do happen, and allow them to maintain their stamina for longer periods. In fact, you may also notice if your therapist is using an electric table that they lower the table when going in to apply heavier work. This is because it allows them to shift their center of gravity, giving them more weight and power when they lean over to apply pressure.

A therapist applying moderate pressure to a client's back with their elbow and forearm.
Therapists can utilize their forearms and elbows to apply greater pressure while saving their hands and wrists from injury.

So, how are Deep tissue and Deep/heavy pressure related?

The simplest answer is that "deep tissue" refers to techniques while "deep/heavy pressure" refers to the amount of force the therapist uses while applying the chosen techniques. Deep or heavy pressure can be moderated by the therapist, meaning they can adjust the amount of pressure incrementally. This change can happen swiftly and without changing the intentions/goals for the massage. Often times, it is easy for a client to notice when a change in pressure occurs.

In contrast, while there are a variety of techniques being used at any given time during a massage, each technique serves a purpose and works to achieve a goal. Deep tissue techniques work to heal and repair the body, where relaxation techniques generally work to relax the mind as well as the body. As a result they may stimulate the body in different ways. Making a change from a deep tissue technique to a relaxation technique is sometimes harder for a client to pick up on while on the table.

As a client, it's easy to see why deep pressure is so often confused with deep tissue when it is more often the pressure that we are aware of when on the table.

A massage therapist conducts a chair massage on a person experiencing back and shoulder pain.
No body likes chronic pain and deep tissue (also called therapeutic massages) can be helpful in alleviating it.

But I thought deep pressure stimulated deep tissues?

It is true that deep pressure often stimulates deeper tissues of the body even when deep tissue techniques are not being applied. This is because of the sheer amount of force being used and the natural displacement of tissue as a result.

However, the application of deep pressure with relaxation techniques does not achieve the same results as applying deep pressure with deep tissue techniques. A relaxation massage with heavy pressure will not be as successful in treating chronic pain or achieving long term relief from various symptoms like: pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, etc.

It's also worth noting that not all clients are candidates for deep or heavy pressure, regardless of tolerance. This could be a result of health history or injury. Heavy pressure, when recklessly applied, could result in serious injury to either the client or therapist, or sometimes both.

How do I book my deep tissue massage with Ideal Massage?

At Ideal Massage we call our deep tissue massage what it is: "Medical/therapeutic" massage. We believe that this more accurately depicts the type of massage you can expect from a deep tissue massage without the added confusion of pressure.

While all therapists are trained in relaxation and therapeutic techniques, some therapists may have additional expertise or a preference for one or the other. For this reason knowing what type of massage you are looking for can be helpful in booking you with the right therapist, as not all therapists offer all massage styles. We do afford you the ability to customize your massage though, so if you are looking for a therapeutic massage with a twist of relaxation, our therapists can generally accommodate you.

In addition, we don't charge extra for deep tissue/therapeutic techniques. This is because we understand that not everyone has the same goals when they go in for a massage and that's ok. Massages aren't a luxury self-care experience for everyone. For some, it is medical treatment for long term pain relief. For others, its therapy for an acute injury that will likely be healed in the next month or so. Whatever your reason, we are here to help.

How do I make sure my therapist offers deep pressure?

The best way to make sure you are booked with a therapist who offers deep pressure is to call. We do also outline on our team pages what maximum pressure we associate with each therapist at the end of each therapist bio. While we make every attempt to keep our bios fresh and up-to-date, there may be times where the availability of pressure or technique may change with the therapists due to injury. For this reason we suggest calling if you have concerns.

Not sure what you are looking for with your next massage? No problem. Give us a call. Our front desk managers can help you figure it out.


Disclaimer: The statements written above were not reviewed by the FDA or any regulatory authority. Massage may not be a suitable treatment for everyone. Consult a medical professional to see if massage therapy is right for you. This article was written by an employee of Ideal Massage for Ideal Massage.

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