Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Hurts so good": massage and "the sweet spot"

Not a massage tool. CC image courtesy Cellular Immunity on Flickr
There are lots of places in Portland you can go and have an elbow or thumb dug into you until it hurts, sometimes until it bruises, in the name of massage therapy. And hey, if that’s your thing? Go for it, with my blessing. I have a couple names to give you, great therapists who are happy to dig in as hard as you want.

That’s not what I do.

Some people mistake that type of work with a deeper level of work -- “deep tissue” -- when the truth is I can get just as deep in your body. I just take a little more time, and get a lot more “permission” from the tissues first. People who think pain is inherently therapeutic -- that if it hurts, it must be “doing something” -- can have a hard time understanding a slower, less invasive type of massage. That’s when I introduce the out-of-5 scale.

I find a 10 point scale too incremental, and trying to figure out whether a particular sensation is a 7 or an 8 pulls people out of their experience and into their heads. A 5 point scale seems just right, though for people who dislike numbers, I sometimes suggest a stoplight schema (green-yellow-red) instead.

In this scale, 3 is usually the “sweet spot”, what many people call “hurts so good” -- and how do we define that? It’s where the sensation might be intense, even potentially painful, but it’s something you are capable of relaxing into and breathing through. If you feel like you’re having to tense up in response to the sensation in order to cope with it, deliberately or unconsciously, that’s too much for the work we’re trying to do (which, after all, is meant to leave you relaxed!).

Sometimes, though, you might find that though your body can handle a 3-level of intensity somewhere -- you’re not tensing up in response to it -- it’s just “too much” for whatever reason. And that’s just fine! I always ask clients to let me know (whether by speaking up or waving a hand or wiggling a foot if you’re feeling non-verbal) if they want me to back off or move on, for whatever reason.

Some people want to be tenderized, worked on until it hurts and then some, which is a fully legitimate desire. But if you want a little more tender touch, more attention to your experience of the massage, find a therapist who works in “the sweet spot”.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo, where I attempt to put up a new blog post every day for 30 days. If you'd like to make sure you don't miss a day (unless I do), you can follow the RSS feed or get emails of every post by signing up to the right; if you'd like to see what I deem the highlights, as well as updates about the practice and future tips on improving your relationship with your body, subscribe to the Holding Space Massage Newsletter.


  1. As a client of yours and a person who also deals with chronic pain, I so appreciate your approach to this "sweet spot" between therapeutic and potentially injurious. It provides a true feeling of safety on your table: where it's okay to travel to a vulnerable place (and return unharmed) or choose to be less challenged (and still leave relaxed and loosened up).

    1. Thank you so much Amy! What you describe is exactly what I work toward, and I'm glad to hear we get there together. <3


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