Does Massage Have to Hurt to Be Effective?

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First and foremost, NO!

I used to gravitate toward more “deep tissue” massage, the kind I referred to as “getting beaten up” by my massage therapist. I thought that it was supposed to hurt in order to be effective. Now that I’ve been an LMT since 2015 and a regular receiver of massage, my approach and personal preference has significantly changed. I am a very active individual, I practice yoga regularly and I LOVE to rock climb, indoors and outdoors. I have found gentle work IS MORE effective for me for several reasons that I will go into later.

The Science of Our Bodies

Beyond my preference, lets talk science. We have what is called our autonomic nervous system, and yes as it sounds, it manages our involuntary or “automatic” actions, like heart rate, breathing, sweating, etc. The “fight, flight or freeze” response is our stress response. It is what allows us to react quickly, like avoiding a car accident, but it can also be triggered by non-life threatening situations that lead increased muscle tension and elevated heart rate. Imagined stressful scenarios, work, traffic, etc. can all attribute to activating our “flight or fight” response.

Massage is most well known for its ability to engage our “rest and digest” response, our body’s natural antidote to our stress response. We NEED to engage our “rest and digest” response in order to lead healthy and balanced lives. Things like deep breathing can activate our “rest and digest” response.

When we experience elevated levels of pain, like a painful massage, this also triggers our “fight or flight” response. So, while one area of the body may be “getting loosened up” other areas of the body are tensing from the reaction to pain.

The Case for a Gentle Massage

How many people do you know who are suffering from being chronically stressed out? Chronic stress does NOT need to be compounded by forcing oneself to “get beaten up” on the table. It’s what we’ve been mislead to believe is the only effective way to reduce muscle tension. If I am engaging your stress response by causing you pain on my table, I am not providing you a truly sustainable service and your muscle tissue and connective tissue remains tense in the rest of your body.

Working gently DOES NOT MEAN that I do not work DEEPLY. It’s a misconception that deep tissue means deep pressure. By rhythmically moving joints and muscles I can coax your body gently into less tension. By sustained compression, firm but not painful, I can manipulate your muscles into “giving up” their tension as opposed to “beating” it out of them, by moving slowly and listening to your body your nervous system will automatically relax, making deeper tissues more accessible to work with. You then leave not only less tense than when you came in, but you may sleep better leading to better mental states. You may digest your food better leading to better nutrition and a healthier immune system.

From personal experience gentle bodywork has lead me to understand my body MORE than deep work. I can feel that my whole body can relax, actually relax, knowing that I won’t be leaving feeling torn apart and tenderized like a steak. I can take this information home with me on a physical level and coax my own body to reduce its muscle tension on my own, when I don’t have a helping hand near by.

You are a whole system. Massage does not need to be painful to be effective. By acknowledging our needs for quiet and restful states, compassionate touch, and being listened to, deeper work will only be more effective.

Next time you get a massage don’t be afraid to speak up for more gentle work. I promise you, it is still effective if not more so.

If you have questions about how my work may be able to help you don’t hesitate to reach out!


Krystal & VWS Team


Krystal Meyer (LMT) is a Licensed Massage Therapist specializing in Myofascial Release, Deep Tissue, Craniosacral and Tui Na. She tailors every session for her clients, pulling from each modality to varying degrees, all the while appreciating the power of the mind, body, and spirit connection. Krystal maintains a deep trust in our body’s innate healing wisdom and avidly believes that when one facet of our being is affected, so too are the others in a harmonious and symbiotic way. She works with her clients to restore balance and ease in their lives, ranging from lessening chronic pain to calming a hyper-vigilant nervous system. Massage to Krystal is far from being a luxury; it is a valuable resource that leads to a more embodied and fulfilling life.