There are a lot of misunderstandings and myths out there regarding massage. Many of them are even propagated by massage therapists, but to be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. Many of us were taught one or more of these myths in massage school, because that’s what their teachers were taught. I was definitely taught the first one when I was in school. So today, I’m going to set the record straight on 5 of them. Knowing the truth will help you better choose a massage therapist, because 1) you won’t even call the ones that perpetuate these myths on their websites, and 2) you can better understand how your body and massage work together.
1. Flush those toxins – Lactic acid and “toxins” are often touted as one of the reasons for muscle pain. You’re told that massage will release the toxins from your muscles, which must then be flushed from your body by drinking lots of water after your session. *Cough*BS*Cough* First, lactic acid is fuel for certain types of muscles, not a toxin. It’s produced when there’s not enough oxygen to power these muscles anymore, and by the time you’ve gotten your breath back after a good workout the lactic acid has been used up. So unless you’re still panting from your workout when you get on the massage table, there’s no lactic acid left in your muscles. Second, the rest of the “toxins” are usually left unnamed or given the generic term of “metabolic wastes.” The body is pretty efficient at taking care of it’s own wastes, and “metabolic wastes” are no different. Besides, if someone can’t tell you what toxins they’re taking about, your BS alarms ought to be sounding the red alert.
2. No pain, no gain – Perhaps this is true in weight lifting or sports (I’m not an expert on those, so I really don’t know), but it couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to massage. Did you know that the only thing a muscle in pain can do is contract? Aren’t you getting a massage to help your muscles relax and be looser and less contracted? You see where I’m going with this don’t you? If you feel pain when your massage therapist is working, it’s likely from 1 or more of these 3 things: they’re working too fast; they’re working too deep; or they’re causing micro tears in your muscles by trying to force them to relax, while simultaneously forcing them to contract to protect themselves. This makes no sense to me. The true story where massage is concerned is this: pain = no gain.
3. Work where it hurts – This one’s a bit counter-intuitive, so I can understand why people have a hard time grasping it. I sincerely believe that this is an honest case of rationally and logically coming to the wrong conclusion – but only most of the time. You see, sometimes the area that hurts is also the source of your pain; most of the time, however, it’s not. Remember, muscles are attached to 2 (and sometimes 3) different bones; if the tight muscle pulls on one of the bones it’s attached to, that’s going to pull on the muscles that are attached to the other side of that bone, pulling them tight (i.e. stretching or over-stretching them). Muscles that are pulled tight tend to hurt, burn, or ache all the time. Muscles that are contracted tight tend not to hurt unless they’re poked or prodded, which elicits a response of, “Hey, I didn’t know that hurt too.” Let me give you an example: You have a constant ache between your shoulder blades. When your massage therapist presses on your pectoral (chest) muscles you flinch. You didn’t realize that they hurt. Then your therapist presses into your armpit (where the rotator cuff muscles are) or along the outside of your shoulder blade and you almost come off the table. Holy Cow, those hurt too! What’s up? What’s up is that your pecs, rotator cuff, and side muscles are all contracted, pulling your shoulder blades away from each other. This is making the area between your shoulder blades hurt (much like your arm would hurt if someone grabbed onto it and pulled). “OK, so that makes sense,” you think, “but then why did I feel better when the last massage therapist spent most of their time working between my shoulder blades?” That’s a good question! The answer is that they probably over-stretched your muscles, which gave you a temporary reprieve from the pain, but actually allowed the tight muscles to get tighter and pull things even farther out of balance.
4. Pain is always structural – If this were true, pain would be so much easier to relieve. It would also mean that everyone with degenerative disc disease, bulging discs, arthritis, or spinal stenosis would be in pain, but that’s not the case. There have been several studies that have found that some people can have advanced cases of any of these problems and be completely pain free, whereas others can have a very mild case and have excruciating pain. So if pain isn’t necessarily caused by these structural problems, what else causes it? That’s a great question, and the answer is stress and the nervous system. Lucky for you, the right massage and bodywork techniques aid stress relief and help reset your nervous system.
5. Deep work has to hurt (or at least be really uncomfortable) – The deepest work is slow and patient… and deeper than you’d ever imagine it to be. Imagine, if you will, that I have my index through pinky fingers sunk into your abdomen all the way (or almost all the way) to your back to release your psoas muscle (yes, that’s a real muscle. Pronounced SO – az). That’s sounds painful doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. That’s because I sink in slowly as your body lets me in. If I were to force my way in, it would hurt and probably feel deeper than it really is. By working with your body instead of against it, it’s possible to go super deep and not have any pain during or after. I don’t know about you, but that’s MY kind of deep work.
Now I’d like to know which, if any, of these myths surprised you. Please leave your reply in the comments, and don’t forget to share!