Mar 2016 19

Bad reactions to massage

By: Dave Wheeler

It won't be a surprise that I'm an advocate of deep tissue massage - after all, it's how I make my living! But sometimes, things can go wrong.


Massage - it ain't rocket science

Actually, it's not science at all. All types of massage, including sports and remedial massage fall under the heading of alternative therapies

The reason for this is that it's pretty much impossible to prove scientifically any of the theories about why massage works. There are too many subjective variables to get an objective scientific measurement of what's going on. A few of the key variables are:

  • each massage therapist is different:
    • different height, weight, strength
    • different angle or height that the treatment is applied each time
    • different level of concentration, energy, or tiredness at different times of the day
  • each client is different:
    • different muscle tone
    • different ability to relax muscle
    • different tolerance of pain
  • each treatment of the same client may be different (depending on what's going on in the client's body that day)

So it becomes pretty difficult to get objective facts about the efficacy of massage treatments.

For this reason, statistics about the rates of "success" or "failure" of massage are just guesswork.

However, there are failures - sometimes people have a bad reaction, especially to deep tissue massage. It seems to me that this failure rate is about 1 in thousand. I have no scientific evidence for that number (after all, I couldn't) - it's a number based purely on my own highly subjective meandering experience.

In my experience, then about 1 in 1000 people have a bad reaction to deep tissue massage.


Deep tissue massage - when things go wrong

With deep muscle techniques (deep tissue massage, neuromuscular technique & trigger point) your therapist isn't just treating the muscles directly, but is trying to utilise the peripheral nervous system which controls the muscles.

The nervous system is a little bit like the operating system of a computer. It's responsible for whole load of "housekeeping" functions of the body:

  • breathing
  • heart pumping
  • bowel function
  • muscle tone and movement
  • protection of the joints
  • etc

The deep muscle techniques target mild pain on specific muscles to:

  1. break down the adhesions in various layers of muscle and fascia (this is the side of the treatment that targets the muscles directly)
  2. make hypertonic muscle relax by causing the nervous system to go looking for ways to escape the pain... eventually, after about a minute, the nervous system seems to try sending urgent "RELAX" messages to the muscle, which seems to work.

In those 1 in 1000 people though, something else seems then to go on in the operating system of the body that is the nervous system. The tight or "crunchy" muscles do indeed relax, but overnight whilst the client is then sleeping the nervous system goes into a reaction against what's happened. It's as though the body's thinks it's been attacked, and it goes into "lock" down - kicking in something similar to the fight or flight response - making the muscles that were massaged tense up even more.

I've only ever known this to happen with either the muscles at the top of the shoulders or at the lower back - and here the muscles tend to go into spasm. There's no theoretical reason, though, why the same wouldn't happen, say, in the leg muscles.

When the nervous system does respond in this way, as if the body's under attack, it can take up to 48 hours to calm down again. There are 2 things which can help soothe the muscles and make things relax more quickly:

  • a long, hot bath
  • a very gentle spa massage

Generally speaking, it seems that most people tolerate deep tissue work and respond to it really well... but for about 1 in a thousand people, their body reacts against it. If you're one of those people, then the chances are, it's just they way your body is - your nervous system is working overtime to protect you and won't let anyone "attack" you. Deep tissue work isn't something that you're likely to get used to, it just means it's probably not for you, and you'll need less vigorous techniques to help relax your muscles.