"No Pain, No-Gain?" The Massage Myth Explored

"No Pain, No-Gain?" - The Massage Myth Explored

Where does this pain myth come from? What’s the reason why many people think that Massage is, or should be, painful to be effective?

The answer is that Massage is only painful if the therapist is not sensitive. That’s the idea that the harder you press, the more therapeutic it must be. However, this one is just an excuse for being insensitive. In some cases, deeper pressure can be beneficial for therapeutic work, but if pressing harder results in the client resisting and tensing up, then you get the opposite result. There is a category of therapists who hide their lack of refined skills and their lack of sensitivity by claiming that their Massage is supposed to be painful. That’s a convenient, but bad excuse. Why? Because it’s not true!

There are Massage therapists who are not well trained and have never developed much sensitivity in their hands. And they, of course, can easily cause unnecessary pain. Some degree of discomfort in a massage session can be normal and acceptable. Let’s look at this issue from a couple of angles.

Massage that includes a lot of stretches (for example, Remedial Massage, Sports Massage and Thai Massage) can lead to pain if the therapist is not very sensitive or well trained. This means the therapist is not talking to the client about preparation, relaxation, breathing, length of stretch, angle of stretch, is not consistently checking in with the client on their pain levels, reading body language, or noticing themselves how tight the muscles are when extended. It is quite easy to overdo the stretches.

Massage therapists who often work with elbows, knees, and feet (such as Thai Massage). If the therapist is not very skilled and sensitive, it is easy to cause pain – for example by pressing your elbow into someone’s body at the wrong place, at the wrong angle, with the wrong amount of pressure, or without correct preparation such as warming up of the muscles prior to the stretch.

Many Massage therapists have only had very basic training. All they know is a sequence of techniques which they apply to all their clients – a one-size-fits-all session. They have never learned the real subtle art of intuitively working with people, of listening to their client’s bodies instead of just doing something to them.

What’s the difference between good and bad pain?

Here we are getting into the subtle art of understanding and managing pain or discomfort in Massage therapy. There really is “good pain” and “bad pain“. How do we tell them apart and how are they defined?

Good pain:

  • Feels releasing
  • Its intensity is diminishing
  • You can relax into it
  • It feels controlled
  • It feels like it is accomplishing something positive
  • It feels beneficial and therapeutic


Bad pain:

  • Feels sharp
  • Feels oppressive and getting worse – the opposite of releasing
  • Feels like it could cause injury
  • Makes you tighten up and resist
  • You cannot relax into it
  • It feels uncontrolled and possibly dangerous


The art is that good Massage therapists have to know the difference between good pain and bad pain, and make sure to never cause bad pain. To develop this skill takes experience, intuition and the ability to listen with your hands instead of just doing something with them. This can also involve talking to your clients and also listening to what they say. The therapist should make the client feel easy about feeding back on pain levels and ensure they listen and learn from their clients' feedback. Therapists should encourage client feedback and adjust their practice accordingly. Many clietns need plenty of encouragement to make them feel they have the authority and right to let you know how painful a technique is. The clietn may be quiet and hide pain from the therapist out of respect for the therapist (thinkin ghte therapist is the trained professional and knows exactly how much pain they are putting their cleint through), and another good reason for a client not letting a therapist know, is that the client is embarrassed at how painful they are finding the massage, thinking they are unfit, too sensitive or a wimp.

The bottom line is that Massage is not painful by nature. Actually Massage can be done in a very gentle way so that you can put your clients to sleep. Learning to work in such a sensitive, intuitive and creative way takes more than just a basic Massage course.