What Is Deep Tissue Massage Therapy
and Its Benefits?

Deep Tissue Massage on Shoulder

Deep tissue massage therapy is directed specifically to releasing tension in deeper muscles and unsticking stuck-together individual muscle fibers (adhesions) that interfere with muscle movement. Massage therapists often use their elbows, forearms, and knuckles to apply deep pressure.

Benefits Of Deep Tissue Massage

This type of massage, sometimes called deep muscle massage, is especially effective for:

  • Helping correct posture
  • Improving limited mobility due to muscle problems
  • Helping heal injuries, including whiplash, sports injuries, and repetitive strain problems.

Deep tissue is a somewhat generic term, as there are many ways of doing deep  massage. A common myth is that this type of massage has to be painful. IT DOES NOT!


Skilled deep tissue is about working with a person's body to reach deeper levels, not plowing through tissue no matter what. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable or intense, depending on a body's condition, but a good massage shouldn't cause a lot of pain. Intense pain is usually a sign that the massage therapist is trying to make something happen rather than encouraging and letting it happen.

In fact, deep tissue expert Art Riggs wrote in a 2005 article in Massage & Bodywork that "painful work is usually ineffective because the muscles contract against the pain, instead of lengthening and relaxing." According to Riggs, the key to effective deep massage is slow strokes that have a specific intention and purpose and that the massage therapist does with full attention. Riggs discusses how the therapist should choose strategies and strokes that are driven with intention and function.

Deep Tissue Massage Techniques

Although some deep tissue techniques resemble Swedish massage, the intention is different. Here are three of the most common deep tissue techniques:

  • Longitudinal lengthening strokes work in the direction of the muscle fibers and emphasize releasing the muscle, mobilizing tissue, and improving joint function.
  • Anchor and stretch (also called pin and stretch) strokes focus on releasing an isolated segment of a muscle that has become short and fibrous. Typically, the massage therapist applies pressure to one point on the muscle, holding it in place, while also stretching the muscle.
  • Cross-fiber strokes work across muscle fibers. The purpose is often to separate fibers that are stuck together. A variation on cross-fiber is a technique where the massage therapist grabs the tissue and rolls it.

In his book, Deep Tissue Massage: A Visual Guide to Techniques, Riggs offers the following principles to massage therapists:

  • Never strain.
  • Use little oil.
  • Work slowly.
  • Use oblique pressure.
  • Work tendinous insertion of muscles in addition to the belly of muscles.
  • Have a clear intention of what you want to accomplish.
  • Direct attention to the layer of the body at which you want to work.
  • Let the body react and stabilize before moving on.
  • Use proper body mechanics. Avoid using your thumbs.

Pfrimmer Deep Muscle Therapy

Pfrimmer Deep Muscle Therapy is a specific type of deep muscle work developed starting in the 1940s by Therese C. Pfrimmer of Canada. After being told by doctors that her paralyzed legs would probably never work again, Pfrimmer, who was trained in massage, began using deep massage techniques on herself and walked three months later. For the next two years she used her techniques on an almost completely paralyzed woman who had advanced multiple sclerosis. The woman regained her ability to walk and went on to live for another 29 years, according to a  Massage Magazine article by Barbara J. Mancini.

Pfrimmer believed her techniques worked by releasing adhered fibers and improving circulation in the muscles. Pfrimmer Deep Muscle Therapy is a system of cross-fiber strokes done in a detailed, systematic way that includes repeating a specific sequence of strokes on each muscle group. The first sequence starts the corrective process, while the repeat sequences prompt the natural healing process of the body.

Although officially Pfrimmer isn't considered a massage technique, and can also be learned by other trained healthcare professionals, in practice the technique is most often learned by trained massage therapists. For more information, see the Therese C. Pfrimmer International Association of Pfrimmer Deep Muscle Therapy.

Sources

Art Riggs, "Deep Tissue Massage Part 1- The Tools," Massage & Bodywork, February/March 2005. "Part 2 - Stroke Intention," Massage & Bodywork, April/May 2005. "Part 3 - Body Positioning," Massage & Bodywork, June/July 2005.

Barbara J. Mancini, "Pfrimmer Deep Muscle Therapy," Massage Magazine, July/August 1998.



Photo Credit: Ryan Hoyme

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