One of the first things I hear from many new clients coming to Siskiyou Massage is that they are looking for a “Deep Tissue” massage. While a traditional deep tissue session can feel great on the table, it is often not as effective long-term as many other modalities (which I’ll discuss in Part II). Additionally, there are some important physiological implications to consider where deep pressure is concerned.
In this first part of the Pressure Series we’ll take a look at the physiology of how soft tissues respond to pressure and stretch, and how the result can be positive or negative depending on the stimulus.
There are two basic types of proprioceptors (sensory organs) that are found in the soft tissues of the body: Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) and Muscle Spindles. Both of these sense organs function in a largely protective capacity in our bodies. Keeping in mind the broad effect these organs have on your soft tissue is important for clients and therapists alike.
Golgi tendon organs are found in the tendons of the body and at the point where tendons and muscles join (the musculotendinous junction). These little organs sense how much tension is being put on a muscle a tendon attaches to. If a GTO senses too much tension being put on a muscle, it will, via the nervous system, prevent that muscle from contracting further. For example, if you usually exercise with a 10 lb weight and then attempt to move up to a 100 lb weight, the GTOs will sense that the dramatically increased tension on the muscle is dangerous. They will prevent you from lifting the heavier weight by stopping the contraction of the at-risk muscle group.
Muscle spindles function in a very similar way, but are located within the actual muscle belly itself. They can sense changes in both the stretch and the speed with which a stretch is applied to a muscle. So, if you step onto a slippery surface and your leg slides quickly out in front of your body, the Muscle Spindles within the hamstrings group will sense that the stretch being put on them is too fast and too far beyond your normal stretch range. They’ll do their best to prevent any further stretch by contracting (shortening) the muscle group in danger of being overstretched. They and the GTOs provide a twofold mechanism for preventing soft tissue injuries.
GTOs and Muscle Spindles will allow for a relaxation in their corresponding soft tissues if the proper pressure or movement is applied. In other words, if a therapist moves your body too quickly or applies deep pressure too fast, your body will likely enact its protective mechanisms and tighten your muscles, “kicking out” the therapist’s hands. Your body will essentially be working against your therapist! This is precisely why it is crucial for a therapist to take the time necessary to “sink in” to a client’s soft tissue slowly. Taking a slower approach is not only easier on your therapist’s body, it will result in a safer application of pressure that will achieve that sensation of “deep tissue” massage many of us are looking for, but without the danger of injury.
In Part II of this series we’ll take a look at some modalities therapists can use that provide the sensation of deep work, but are often more effective than traditional, Deep Tissue massage therapy.