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  • Writer's pictureStacey Lynn

Why Does Massage Hurt?

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Years ago, I came across a fantastic YouTube video by Tom Myers, creator of Anatomy Trains titled 'Why does Massage Hurt'. In the video, Myers describes "pain as sensation combined with the motor intention to withdraw". Myers continues by saying that without the motor intention to withdraw there is no pain, only sensation.

That said, it might not be the pressure of massage that is painful, it may be the unconscious intention to tense up while receiving pressure that is painful. When we allow our tension to be met or receive the pressure, the experience of pain can shift to the experience of a wide variety of sensations that arise when patterns of tension are being unwound. And why would we tense up around the experience of our tension being unwound when this is the primary purpose of receiving manual therapy in the first place?

Myers describes 3 types of pain:

  • pain going into the body (ie. an injury occurs)

  • pain stored in the body (ie. patterns of tension form to protect the injured area)

  • pain coming out of the body (the patterns of tension are unwound)

That said, it is when we perceive the massage (either consciously or unconsciously) as pain going into the body rather than pain coming out of the body we might respond with a gripping up or a pushing away of the pressure. In other words, with our patterns of tension, we have done such a good job protecting the injury that we are trying to keep these patterns. And so, if during your session you would like to let go of the tension, it is important to be mindful of the motor intention to withdraw.

It amazing that we have these responses that have the intention to protect us from further harm and so it is important to honor the pain/patterns of protection. They exist to help us function, after all. That said, we must never force the patterns to release beyond their capacity. Forcing the tissue to release beyond their capacity IS pain going into the body. Forcing the patterns to release reinforces the patterns of tension/protection. This is where a skilled practitioner comes into play.

With my years of experience I've become quite sensitive to the spectrum of readiness our bodies and minds have in letting go. From tissue that is so tense/pain that is so stored that we've become unconscious to it and therefore even the deepest pressure offers no sensation, to pain that we are so acutely aware of that even the slightest pressure feels overwhelming. The one thing the entire spectrum requires is the capacity of both the practitioner and the client to sit with/be present with the experience.

Hence my saying, we cannot let go of what we don't know we're holding onto and my whole purpose being to bring attention to your tension. With this awareness we can begin to shift from the unconscious motor intention to withdraw into the noticing and observing of sensations which is what it is to release the tension. Yes, with awareness, but also, with breath.

Now that we have the awareness that our intention is to release the stored pain, instead of withdrawing, we breathe. I have another saying: 'to hold onto your breath is what it is to hold onto your tension'. Think of what happens when pain goes into the body... there is often a short sharp breath or holding of the breath and we 'tense up'. And so we are guided into breath as a means of teaching the nervous system that is is literally safe to let go. In other words, in that moment, the injury is not happening. We are feeling the sensations of the old injury, giving the body permission to release the patterns of protection.

Let put this into the context of emotional injury.

It's true, our bodies and minds respond to physical pain the same way they do emotional pain. This is exactly how emotion gets 'stored in the body' and why I'm so excited to support my clients' body mind connection.

The body experiences both physical and emotional trauma, in a similar manner. Trauma is a change in the optimal functioning of your body and brain due to an overwhelm of acute or chronic physical or emotional stress. This overwhelm can be too much for the body and mind to process at once and a protection response is what helps us cope with the overwhelm. As a Bodywork Therapist, I am here to help you process the trauma.

There you have it! A break down as to why massage hurts! Below you'll find the Tom Myers video I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, and if you're curious to learn more, please don't hesitate to reach out by emailing me at

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