You've asked for a relaxation massage, something to ease the tension from your shoulders and wick away your stress. But now, stretched out on the table, you're experiencing other sensations: pain with a side of "ouch," and you're wondering, "Is this tension and stress leaving my body? Is this what it's like to have your knots worked out? Is it supposed to hurt?"
The short answer is: probably not. As Adriana Alvarez, director of spa and salon operations at Costa del Sur in Las Vegas, explains, a relaxation massage—also referred to by many spas as a Swedish massage—is meant to ease tension, not cause pain. It often uses three types of touch to do so: effleurage, a circular movement made with the palm of the hand using light to medium pressure; petrissage, which includes kneading, wringing, and skin rolling; and tapotement, rapid "taps" made across the skin to wake up muscles and increase blood flow.
No matter the technique used, "a good relaxation massage should use enough pressure so the client feels like they are getting a massage—not just that the therapist is spreading lotion over their body," says Jill Nelson, LMT, CLT, in Kensington, Maryland. But even that shouldn't hurt, she says. Instead, a relaxation massage can release the feel-good hormone endorphins, work out kinks in your muscles, and create a sense of peace.
With that said, it's important to remember that every person is different, Nelson explains. "Relaxation massages shouldn't hurt; however, depending on the person sometimes the lightest amount of pressure can be too much. A relaxation massage should be just that—relaxation." And if it's not relaxing for you, then Nelson and Alvarez agree that it's time to speak up—stat—to your massage therapist.
"Once you are in the room, the therapist may be checking to see how the pressure is at the beginning of the massage," explains Alvarez. "It is always okay to let the therapist know that the pressure is too much." Alvarez adds that, depending on your own tolerance and the body parts being massaged, medium pressure may be appropriate one moment when light touch is needed another. "There is never a wrong time to let the therapist know," she says.
Of course, if you go into a massage knowing a part of your body is hurt—say, a bruise or a wound that's recently healed—and you don't alert the therapist, you could also get hurt. "If a client has an acute issue they didn't share, the therapist could unwittingly apply too much pressure," says Nelson. "So, it's important for clients to inform therapists of all issues—and that includes medications. We don't want to be using deep-tissue techniques on someone who is taking medicine for osteoporosis, for example, or is on steroids, which can make the skin more fragile, or is on blood thinners, which can cause people to bruise more easily."
If you leave a massage in pain, there are a few things you can do retroactively to help, says Alvarez. First, drink plenty of water, which will "help your body flush any toxins that were just released," she says. Then, if you can—at the spa or at home—step into a hot tub, or a steam or sauna room to aid healing, she says. "If the pain continues, then I would reach out to the facility that you received the services from for any other suggestions," Alvarez adds.