Massage Misconception #1: Pain versus Gain

Massage Misconception #1: Pain versus Gain

You may be familiar with the expression “no pain, no gain.” Well-known to the fitness industry, it promotes the idea that without pain we will never achieve our fullest potential. Even if we are left battered and bruised in the process, we must still be willing to do anything necessary to get an excellent result.   

The massage industry is not immune to this motto either, with many people eagerly lining up ready to hurt because they believe that is what their muscles need. However, this way of thinking is potentially harmful*.  

This is because many of us think that to see the results we want we must really feel it happeningHowever, when we ignore our body’s adverse reaction to something and push through anyway, we are more likely to endure injury or have an area overworked. Yet, as opposed to evaluating what is going on, we largely assume and accept that “this is what is supposed to happen”.   

Let’s say you arrive with a stiff neck and pain between your shoulder blades. Even before I physically assess any muscle, one of the many questions I will ask you is what kind of work you do. Let’s say your answer is desk work. Although some of my attention will be to focus on your back and delve into other details of your health history, my education and experience will tell me to look to your front first. That is, for as much as you might love me to drive my elbow in between your shoulder blades and torque on your neck for the next sixty minutes with the deepest, most intense, and pain-inducing techniques I can muster, I am going to refuse.  

What? Refuse? But it hurts! Hurt me more so I hurt less!!  

I will refuse because more times than not, your pectoral muscles (via your work posture) are likely to be the main culprit and prioritizing them can increase your body awareness and create a more effective massage. Think about it. When we sit in front of a computer all day our shoulders roll inward, our heads crane forward and our backs get stretched and stiff. Everything has moved forward and caved inward.   

If I only focus on where the pain feels most prominent, in this case your mid-back, I am immediately doing you a disservice. Similarly, if I only apply techniques with an intention to satisfy your desire for pain by adding more pain, not only might I (unintentionally) injure you, but I bypass the bodily responses that should be informing my actions in the first place! As your massage therapist, I want your muscles to “let me in” so I can do my work and by the end of the treatment I want you, my client, to not only have a better understanding of the postural imbalances you contribute to daily, but feel empowered using tools you now have, to create better habits. I should not be out to hurt you, and you should not be out to hurt you either.   

Being someone in the business of pain management and relief, my overarching want is to prove that a massage does not have to leave you breathless, squirming in pain, and/or sore for days after you see me. (I have a had at least a handful of my clients shudder as they recall treatments where they asked for pressure that left them hurting.)** 

Muscles deserve attention and the nervous system should be stimulated, but never should either feel under attack. That is why I am always happy when I have a client who originally wanted me to “bring ALL the pain” become noticeably impressed with how pain-free their experience was, and yet their muscles felt “worked” and a longer-term benefit remained.

So, the next time you are in pain and booking an appointment, know that you do not have to be in extreme pain to have a good massage and get the results you want.  


*’Harmful’ because in some situations, like someone who has osteoarthritis or who is pregnant, deep pressure is not advised. Always check with your doctor as well as your massage therapist if you are unsure about how your condition(s) can affect your massage.    

**Massage is a shared responsibility and pain is very subjective. Please speak up if you are in pain because if you do not tell us, we do not know.