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Does “Light Touch” Mean It Won’t Be Painful?

The short answer to this is “not always”. Because the touch is lighter, there will not be pain from the force of the touch itself. However, sometimes pain seems to be part of healing, and there is no getting around it without reducing the effectiveness of the treatment. Imagine for instance that you have an infected cut. It must be cleaned in order to heal, and that cleaning is often uncomfortable. As the cut heals it may be itchy and uncomfortable. This is a natural part of healing. Other times change and healing happen very gently, perhaps suddenly, perhaps so slowly you don’t really notice it, but realize one day–“hey, that shoulder didn’t hurt when I used it”.

Hyla_gratiosa,_Barking_tree_frog,I_JP1441Related questions: Don’t you believe in “no pain, no gain”? Do you use light touch because you are squeamish about causing pain? Can you guarantee a pain-free session?

The short answer to all these questions is “no”. I don’t like the “no pain no gain” saying because pain is unpleasant for a reason–often (although not always) it is a signal that something is wrong. I talk a lot about “good pain” versus “bad pain”, that is, pain that is part of a positive change or correction, versus pain that is the body signaling tissue damage of some type. Some people can understand this right away, others need some coaching and practice to have confidence that they can tell the difference. If you are really stuck on “no pain no gain” and are sure that more pain means the work must be more effective, remember that breaking your leg is really really painful. This does not mean that breaking a leg is the most effective way to treat your problems!

On the other hand, avoiding the most effective work because it is painful is not useful either and can lead to an intense feeling of frustration. If you’ve ever had what a friend calls the “fluff-n-buff” style of massage and left feeling sort of cheated, that’s because the focus was on keeping it pleasant, and none of the deeper issues were addressed at any useful level. I’ve never been particularly afraid of pain–I have a pretty high pain threshhold myself, plus a talent for finding the most intense spots. I have no fear at all of doing what’s needed, whether it is painful, intense, emotional, or otherwise uncomfortable, as long at it is within the tolerance of the client, and not harmful. But that is very different from measuring the success of a massage by how much pain it has caused. I measure the success of a massage session by how much better you feel, or by objective things such as how much further can you turn your head, etc. If we need to get through pain for this, we will, if we can achieve it without pain or with less pain, that’s even better.

If you want a pain-free session, the best I can do is to work with a lot of empathy and make sure that I ask for and listen to lots of feedback. People who have been in a lot of pain for a long time will sometimes need a fair amount of very gentle, pain-free work so that their bodies will trust my hands and be willing to relax and shift. I have also found that often after surgery or chemotherapy or a serious accident, pain tolerance will be much lower than before, so low that it can seem to limit the amount of work possible. In these cases it is important to respect the current tolerance until the body is ready for change. We can gently clear chemical toxins from the tissues, reduce inflammation and slowly release spasm until the body is ready for deeper work. Trying to “push through” such pain has never made the work go faster and in some cases can delay recovery.

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