How Does Deep Tissue Massage Work? What to Know Before You Go

May 07, 2019

A man receives a deep tissue massage at a spa.
Bana Jobe

Call up your local massage parlor to ask for an appointment, and you'll likely have to pick from a menu of ample options — Swedish, deep tissue, hot stone … the list goes on and on.

If you're in particular need of some relaxation or loosening up, you might gravitate toward the strongest-sounding one of the bunch, the deep tissue massage. It sure sounds like it can iron out the kinks, right?

But know this: While it can be a great option, this technique isn't for everyone.

How Does Deep Tissue Massage Work?

So how does deep tissue massage work, exactly? Like its name suggests, deep tissue massage reaches the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue, the Mayo Clinic says. Therapists trained in this technique will work in more focused and stronger movements, stroking targeted areas of the body that are particularly achy or stiff from prior injuries or chronic pain.

As a technique that has a very clear purpose at the get-go, deep tissue massage is what Cleveland Clinic calls a medical massage. That's in contrast to a relaxation massage (such as Swedish massage, the most common type of massage therapy), which has an entirely different aim:

  • In a deep tissue massage, you go in with a targeted goal (like to relieve back pain). Because of the forceful massage pressure and strokes in one particular area of the body, which may hurt, you might leave sore — but potentially on a better (albeit temporary) path to pain relief.
  • In a relaxation massage, you go in with a more general goal (like to relieve stress or tension from work or to feel more relaxed overall). Because of the more gentle strokes, you can expect to leave in a more relaxed state — potentially even with that tingly post-massage sensation all over your body (thanks to the hormone dopamine).

What Happens to the Body During a Deep Tissue Massage?

On the outside, a deep tissue massage may resemble any other massage, but on the inside — thanks to the more forceful pressure — something pretty incredible is happening: Your body responds to the strong strokes by releasing and redistributing the tissue closest to the bone which may have tightened or "knotted" over time. If you have particularly tough or scarred tissue, it can also help accelerate the breakdown for recovery.

What Are Some Deep Tissue Massage Benefits?

Some people have likened deep tissue massage to a Swedish massage "on steroids," and for good reason: Deep tissue massage benefits resemble other massage benefits, but in a more targeted way. In addition to deeper tissue release for pain relief, you may enjoy:

  • A release in the "happy hormone" dopamine (kind of like endorphins from a runner's high).
  • A reduction of the "stress hormone" cortisol.
  • More blood flow to different parts of the body.
  • A release of toxins in the muscles.
  • A more relaxed sensation.

But keep in mind that these benefits come with a price: You might walk away feeling more sore than you did going in, because of the firmer pressure from the massage. So if you're looking for a general "feel-good" massage, a Swedish massage is still your best bet.

How Can You Prepare for a Deep Tissue Massage?

You won't need to do much preparation before your massage, other than thinking through your preferences. Consider how you'd like to feel afterward, any particular areas that have been giving you pain, and whether you're okay with fragrances, oils or lotions being used on your skin.

What Should You Let Your Therapist Know Before Getting Started?

To get what you want (and need) from your massage session, you'll need to be upfront with your therapist at the onset. Disclose any allergies or health issues, including medicines you take and previous conditions, injuries or surgeries. Explain where it hurts, how long you've felt the pain and what it feels like.

And as you get into it, be honest! If something hurts, say so. Just because you opted into a deep tissue massage, doesn't mean you're doomed for pain. At anytime, you can ask your therapist to apply less pressure or stop entirely. It's your experience, after all.

Sign Up to Receive Our Newsletter & Get the Best Ergonomic Tips