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Deep tissue massage: can it help scars?

Deep tissue massage is a type of massage that focuses on the deeper tissue structures of the muscle. Also known as the connective tissue, the massage uses techniques meant to stimulate these areas. Deep tissue massage is very similar to a Swedish massage and the two share many of the same techniques. However as the name might suggest, a deep tissue massage is more focused and uses more intense levels of pressure as the therapist works to dig into the tissues and release chronic muscle tension.

Deep tissue massage can be used as a ‘blanket term’ that describes a number of different massage therapists. Sometimes, the term is used medically by physiotherapists and chiropractors. Deep tissue massage techniques are used in most forms of massage, particularly in:

• Swedish massage
• Thai massage
• Sports massage

Types of deep tissue massage

Deep tissue massage is particularly effective for people suffering from muscular pain, particularly from overexertion. That’s why its features crop up so prominently in sports massages. When you think about deep tissue massage, you might think there is only one kind but actually, there is more than one out there. Here are several examples:

Cupping

In 2004, Gwyneth Paltrow caused a stir at a film premiere when she showed up with large red circular bruises on her back – clearly visible above her strapless top. At first glance, they looked like love bites, but actually they were from cupping – a form of acupuncture that involves placing heated cups over the skin to encourage blood flow, reduce stress and soothe aches and pains. This suction drains excess fluid and toxins from muscle tissue and stimulates blood flow to your muscles and skin. The immediate aftereffects look a bit startling, but it’s deeply relaxing. Justin Bieber, Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Aniston are said to be fans of this therapy as well.

Cross-fibre friction

This treatment works across the fibres of the muscles and treats soft tissue injuries. It uses deep friction to break down muscle knots and lesions which form during injuries and cause tears, breaks, sprains and twists. The purpose is to maintain mobility within the muscle, tendons and ligaments.

Trigger point therapy

This therapy intentionally places pressure on specific trigger points, temporarily halting blood flow to a certain area of the body before releasing it. This leads to an immediate rush of fresh blood to that area. The sudden surge of blood makes your limbs feel warm and strong. Trigger point therapy is useful for kick-starting sluggish blood circulation, as it leads to a sudden surge in fresh blood and ensures fresh oxygen is pumped around your body. This technique is a feature in Thai massage.

Balinese and Indonesian massage

These styles involve deeply massaging the myofascia or fascia, which is the dense tissue that covers your organs, muscles and bones. The therapy is a combination of various massage techniques, acupressure, reflexology and aromatherapy. It’s very effective when used to heal sports injuries.

Myofascial release

MFR is an alternative therapy that treats skeletal immobility and pain by gently relaxing contracted muscles and improving blood flow to the area so stimulating the stretch reflex in muscles. Also known as the connective tissue massage, the therapy is essentially a stretching technique that releases tension and pain from deep within the fascia. Physiotherapists use it to treat patients with soft tissue issues.

What is a deep tissue massage good for?

Primarily, a deep tissue massage realigns the deeper layers of muscles. It helps to relax intensely tense muscles, increase blood flow to the affected areas and help fresh oxygen flow around your body. This helps remove toxins from strained muscles and the fresh blood flow replenishes them with nutrients to help them heal and strengthen. A deep tissue massage is often used on and requested by people who are recovering from accidents and injuries, particularly sports-related ones because it promotes blood circulation in underused, ‘stagnant’ muscles, relieves chronic tension and even helps to break down scar tissue.

How a deep tissue massage works


By using a mixture of slow and firm pressures by strong strokes, a deep tissue massage can be used to treat numerous physical conditions. It’s particularly helpful for chronically tense and muscularly contracted areas like stiff necks, tight backs and sore shoulders. Some of the strokes may feel similar to a Swedish massage, but they’re usually slower, deeper, and more intense and concentrated on the points of tension.

The strokes stimulate the deeper levels of muscle tissue. When muscle and fascia are tense, they are hardened and block efficient flow of blood, which prevents nutrients and oxygen from properly reaching your tissues. This blockage causes painful inflammation as toxins build up. A pain cycle is created where you become increasingly stressed from the pain of the inflamed area and blockage of toxins. Deep tissue massage breaks this up and releases tension from the specific area of tension. Blood flow can resume and the healing process can begin. This also means scar tissue can be broken up and over time, scars can be eliminated.

During a deep tissue massage, the therapist may use their hands, fingers, thumbs, forearms, elbows and even ceramic, wooden or glass tools to maximise pressure placed on the tense muscles.

How a deep tissue massage helps with scar tissue

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Because a deep tissue massage is so similar to a Swedish massage and a sports massage, it is well-known for helping to relieve aches and strains caused by over-exerting your muscles. By helping to relax contracted muscles and encouraging blood flow to the affected areas, all of the therapies can help to promote quick healing. The main difference is the level of pressure involved – a deep tissue is arguably more intense than even a sports massage. Although a Swedish and sports massage can affect the deeper levels of tissues, they do not stimulate them to the same extent as a deep tissue massage. A deep tissue massage was designed to stimulate these hidden, hard-to-reach levels of muscle and tissue – as the name might suggest.

But to what extent can this massage style help scar tissue?

When you exercise, you strain your muscles and they tear. The tears heal and new, stronger muscle tissue forms, so it becomes more difficult to tear them again. This means you can push yourself harder and take more physical strain. According to The Stretching Handbook, when these tears heal, sometimes scar tissue can form. Scar tissue isn’t as flexible as normal muscle tissue, nor is it as strong which increases the risk of experiencing future injuries.

At the hands of a highly trained therapist, a deep tissue massage helps to break up scar tissue and promotes proper healing of the tissue. According to the Institute for Integrative Healthcare Studies, massaging the area with scar tissue can help increase the flexibility and range of motion in the muscular area. This will keep the area supple and help to prevent re-injury. Deep tissue massage can manipulate the lower levels of the soft muscle tissues and work to relieve pain and nerve impairment caused by the hardened scar tissue.

Technique

Massage to the affected area should initially be superficial. After the tissue is warmed up, the deep tissue work can truly begin. The main technique is friction based massage (cross fibre friction massage) where the therapist digs the tips of her fingers into the intended area and works all over it. When she reaches the site of the injury, she will use a strumming motion and stroke her fingers back and forth like she’s strumming a guitar. This is how friction massage works. It can feel uncomfortable, but if it feels overly strange or painful, let the therapist know.

Prevention is better than a cure

Not only can a deep tissue massage reduce existing scar tissue, it can decrease the chances of scar tissue forming in the first place. Cross-fibre friction massage is one technique used during a deep tissue session that is particularly effective. When you massage across the grain, you can stimulate blood flow to the sore area and prevent scar tissue from forming. This technique is often used on patients who have recently had cosmetic surgery and scars are obviously much undesired. Scars are unwanted regardless of the situation, but this is especially significant in people who have recently had surgery as scars are unsightly or athletes who have overexerted their bodies, as scars limit their mobility. A deep tissue massage greatly reduces the risk of the hardened tissue forming or if it does, diminishes its presence.

It’s more difficult to reduce the size of the scar later on, so it’s important to work on the injured area as soon as possible in order to prevent scar formation. If a scar does form, it’s important to work on it as soon as it’s no longer an open wound and is healed. The more it heals, the more pressure you can place in the area and you can really see the scar tissue be broken up and reduced over time.

Main benefits of a deep tissue massage

As well as breaking up scar tissue by stimulating lymphatic circulation and drainage to the affected area, a deep tissue massage is also associated with these benefits:

Reduces pain and stiffness of muscles and joints

The University of Maryland Medical Centre says that a deep tissue massage is a more effective and affordable way to relieve chronic pain than traditional and conventional medicines and therapies.

Improves blood pressure

Massages are well-known for their relaxing benefits. There’s something so comforting about touch and it feels even better when the tension is being worked out of your body. This helps to ease stress and tension, which lowers blood pressure. Massage also encourages the release of serotonin, a hormone that is responsible for creating and stabilising good mood.

Rehabilitates injured muscles

A deep tissue massage can help speed up the muscle healing process and reduce the recovery time in between workouts. How does it do that? Well the massage stimulates the muscles and which boosts blood circulation. An efficient flow of blood means that fresh nutrients and oxygen can flow to help with healing, and metabolic waste can be removed more quickly. Plus, the massage helps to relax muscles, so it can reduce pain and minimise the risk of overstraining the injured area. Deep tissue massage is often used on people suffering from sports injuries and whiplash.

Will a deep tissue massage hurt?

Under the hands of a trained professional, a deep tissue massage shouldn’t hurt but you will experience more discomfort than you would with a Swedish massage because there’s deeper pressure involved. Therapists don’t just use their hands and fingers. They may dig their thumbs in, use their forearms and even elbows to reach a wide range of pressures. If the pressure becomes too much for you, then always speak up so the therapist can switch to another technique and avoid injuring you. If the pressure is uncomfortable, you will subconsciously tense up in order to guard your body from pain. This makes it more difficult for the therapist to do your body any good.

It’s always better to experience less pressure than too much. Only take as much as you can while your body is relaxed. This point can be difficult to find, but with time and as you get more used to your massage therapist, it becomes easier. They get to know your body and its limits, and you get to know what to expect from them. A trusting rapport builds up so it’s easier give feedback.

After a deep tissue massage, make sure you drink a lot of water to help flush metabolic waste and lactic acid out of your tissues. This reduces the soreness you may experience the next day.

How quickly will I see results after my massage?

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You have to be realistic about your expectations. Some people have never had a massage before and expect to get rid of all the tension they’ve built up over the years in just one hour long session. They then proceed to ask the therapist to keep increasing the pressure because they think if their muscles are pushed hard enough, all their knots can disappear. This isn’t realistic and it can lead to injuries (not to mention deep soreness the next day!).

Ironing out muscle knots and lifelong tension is best achieved when you have an integrated plan made up of exercise, relaxation techniques and regular massage sessions. The most important thing to remember is that regularly engaging in any activity will improve the benefits you get from it. If you want to really experience major improvement in the appearance of scars, regular sessions of deep tissue massage can help get you there.

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