Whether you’re an athlete with a daily high demand placed on your body or recovering from an injury or illness, deep tissue massage likely has some benefits to offer you. Massages have been utilized for thousands of years throughout the world to lower both physical and psychological stress. And today, research continues to show that whether used alone or in conjunction with other treatments, massage therapy is an effective way to help treat common conditions like arthritis, anxiety and chronic lower back pain.
The primary goal of deep tissue massage is to reduce pain and discomfort, while improving the body’s ability to heal itself. Deep tissue massages are not only relaxing — they also help “lengthen and release muscles” that frequently feel tense and get stuck in uncomfortable holding patterns. (1) Let’s explore what, exactly, deep tissue massage is and all the ways it can benefit your body and mind.
What Is Deep Tissue Massage?
Deep tissue massage involves manipulation of the deep layers of tissue in the body, including the fascia and other supportive tissue that make up the muscles and joints. Compared to other popular massage techniques — including Swedish massage or acupressure, which tend to be lighter in pressure and can involve moving the body into certain positions — deep tissue massage is usually slower and firmer. (2)
A person receiving a deep tissue massage usually lays on the stomach or back in one position, while deep pressure is applied to targeted areas of the body by a trained massage therapist. The massage is beneficial mostly because it helps stimulate blood flow and relieve muscle tension, while at the same time lowering psychological stress and releasing “happy hormones” like serotonin and oxytocin.
Most deep tissue massages normally focus on major muscle groups — such as the neck or lower back — along with joints and tendons that are susceptible to straining or injuries. Certain areas of the body that tend to tense up in times of stress, including the shoulders, neck and hips, can often benefit the most from this type of deep manipulation. Many people consider “sports massages” to be a form of deep tissue massage, which involves physical treatment primarily to neuromusculoskeletal systems to treat pain and disability, improve muscle recovery and joint mobilization, and prevent injuries.
Manipulative approaches to naturally treating pain and other health problems have been utilized for over 3,000 years, dating back to Ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations. Pressure massages were used to improve “Qi” (life force or energy), detox the body and promote better liver function — which today can be explained through the process of activating the lymphatic system.
Experts believe that the ancient Egyptians were the first to use very firm, deep pressure to treat chronic pain. (3) In the West, deep tissue massage started to gain attention during the mid-19th century, starting in Canada and making its way throughout the U.S.
Benefits of Deep Tissue Massage
1. Treats Chronic Back Pain
One study that compared the effectiveness of two different kinds of massages for treating chronic back pain, therapeutic massage versus deep tissue massage (DTM), found that DTM treatment over the course of 10 days resulted in significantly better improvements in pain compared to therapeutic massage.
In this particular study, published in Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, therapeutic massage included techniques of tapping and friction, while DTM used “oblique pressure and a combination of lengthening and cross-fiber strokes.” All sessions were 30 minutes long and preformed daily, and all participants did not receive any other treatments during the course of the study. After 10 days, participants treated with DTM reported significant improvements in pain (lower back pain in this case) compared to those treated with therapeutic massage, based on scores using the Modified Oswestry Low Back Pain Disability Index, Quebec Back Pain Disability Scale and Visual Analog Scales. (4)
Other studies have show similar findings. A 2014 study published in the Scientific World Journal even found that DTM treatment alone had just as much of a positive effect on reducing pain in patients with chronic symptoms compared to massage and NSAID painkillers used together. (5)
2. Helps Lower High Blood Pressure
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that deep tissue massage had positive effects on systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure readings in adults with pain and high blood pressure symptoms.
The study involved 263 volunteers with an average age of 48.5. Overall muscle spasm/muscle strain was described as either moderate or severe for each patient prior to treatments, which consisted of a massage between 45–60 minutes in duration. Results demonstrated an average systolic pressure reduction of 10.4 mm/Hg, a diastolic pressure reduction of 5.3 mm/Hg, a mean arterial pressure reduction of 7.0 mm/Hg and an average heart rate reduction of 10.8 beats per minute following massage treatment. (6)
3. Reduces Stress, Anxiety and Muscle Tension
Inflammation caused by chronic stress and muscle tension can lead to worsened overall health, longer recovery time, reduced immune function and cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure. Studies have found that massage therapy can help lower cortisol levels and even boost production of the hormone called oxytocin, which relaxes the body and has soothing effects. (7) Oxytocin is the primary hormone responsible for sustaining social bonds in humans and increasing motivation for cooperative behaviors, which is why it’s often called the “cuddle hormone” and known to be released during hugs, birth, social bonding and from touch.
Several mechanisms for deep massage’s natural stress-relieving effects include its ability to dilate blood vessels and also lower activity of the limbic system (including the hypothalamus), which is responsible for autonomic nervous system regulation and cortisol secretion. Massage has been shown to improve relaxation by boosting activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, as measured by heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability. (8, 9)