What’s the Difference Between a Relaxation and a Deep Tissue Massage?

Like many massage therapists, my two most often requested services are Relaxation Massage, and Deep Tissue Massage.  These are offerings that can be found on just about any massage service menu, anywhere in the country.  And in my years working on people, I still sometimes have trouble summing up the difference between the two, when discussing which massage a client should choose.  However, it’s good to know the basic differences between the two, so that if you’ve never had a massage before, or even if you are accustomed to having them, you can make an informed decision as to which massage will suit your needs.  So, here is my (lengthy) explanation of how my massages differ from one another.

First, let’s make note of  the difference between a Swedish Massage and a Relaxation Massage.  Many times the terms are used interchangeably, as both are intended primarily for relaxation; however, there are technical differences that set the two apart.  A traditional Swedish Massage is comprised of five specific strokes:  effleurage (gliding), petrissage (kneading), friction, vibration, and tapotement (tapping).  To be considered a true Swedish Massage, all five of these strokes must be used in the massage.

A Relaxation Massage typically employs a combination of Swedish techniques.  However, often, massage therapists will weed out one or more of these strokes, sometimes bringing other techniques into their routine; as such, the massage becomes a Relaxation Massage.  The pressure used in a Relaxation massage can range from mild to firm, depending on both client preference and therapist strength. As a side note, it’s important, when looking for a therapist, to find one who is willing and able to provide the amount of pressure that is comfortable for you, without over-exerting him- or herself.  Be sure to communicate with your therapist regarding what is comfortable for you in order to get the best possible experience, but be aware that you may have to try out a few therapists for comparison until you find one that you like.  In doing so you are being fair to both you and your therapist.

The intention of the Relaxation Massage is to promote the circulation of blood and lymph fluid, lower blood pressure and increase the hormones and neurotransmitters that promote a sense of wellbeing, allowing you the time to disconnect from the world, reconnect with your body, and put body, mind and spirit at ease.  When this happens, stress hormones are reduced, and a general sense of relaxation happens.  Over time, regular Relaxation Massage can help you to manage your health by increasing your vitality and flexibility, improving your sleep patterns, and boosting your immune function.  I encourage my clients to have a massage at least once monthly.  Some have theirs as often as every one to two weeks, others space theirs out to every six weeks— but all come to know and feel the benefits of massage, and develop a better awareness of their bodies’ needs.

The goal of Deep Tissue Massage is to target areas which are chronically impacted by overuse, underuse, misuse, or abuse, resulting in reduced mobility and/or referred pain.  The means by which this is achieved can range, from applying pressure to a muscle knot or “trigger point” with the thumbs, forearms, or elbows; to using specialized massage modalities which target the deeper structures of muscle tissue and fascia, such as Myofascial Release, Tui Na, or Neuromuscular Therapy, to name just a few.  If your massage therapist specializes in these or other modalities, he or she can explain how each may assist in resolving your pain.

In a Deep Tissue Massage appointment, it is possible that the entire body may not be addressed during your allotted appointment time.  Typically the most time is devoted to resolving the specific issues that you indicate at the beginning of your appointment, and if time allows, your therapist will work on the rest of your body.  But, as the massage is focused on resolving specific pain within the body, the focused work may be necessary for one or more appointments, eventually becoming a more whole-body-focused massage.  At this point some clients choose to scale back to Relaxation work for maintenance.  Many of my clients who are more active or subjected to repetitive stress in certain areas of their bodies consistently book Deep Tissue Massages, and these are the appointments that keep their chronic pain in check.  At the beginning of each appointment, we discuss the current state of their chronic stress and pain, and assess how much time will or should be necessary to spend working on these specific issues.  This way there is no confusion about the expectations for the appointment.

It’s important to note that, though there may be several similarities between the two massages, the intention and the focus are usually quite different.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about the intensity of the pressure.  A relaxation massage can be given with firm pressure to suit a client’s comfort level, and a Deep Tissue Massage can be given using very mild pressure, in order to affect the deeper structures of the body without causing a client to tense up, which would be counterproductive.  A Relaxation Massage targets the entire body with the focus on general  health and wellbeing, while a Deep Tissue Massage targets specific areas to resolve pain and trauma in order to promote healing.  It’s only after having given much thought to writing this post that I am finally able to come up with that summation, after all these years.

If you are still unsure which massage to choose, have a conversation with your therapist about your specific issues, the history behind them, and your desired outcome.   Share what you are doing outside of massage therapy to help bring your body back into balance, and form a plan together for successfully creating a healing environment for your body.  Be realistic about your plan for wellness; one massage alone is not likely to resolve everything, but it can open the door to how much better you can feel when you include massage in your regular wellness routine.


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