all gain, no pain.

No Pain – All Gain

No Pain – All Gain

“I like a REALLY firm massage.”

“I have a really high pain tolerance.”

“I’m looking for a proper pummelling.”

These are just a couple of the phrases I hear on a regular basis in clinic from clients who are trying to tell me that they want me to hurt them. Occasionally they even just come right out and say it! Now while some people genuinely like pain, and if that’s your thing I’m not here to judge, as Sheryl Crow sang “if it makes you happy it can’t be that bad”. But for the majority of people it’s not that they like pain, it’s more the fact that they believe in the ridiculous notion that if it doesn’t hurt it’s not doing them any good!

no pain no gain

What started as a motivational tool used by personal trainers to encourage clients to push through/try harder/keep going for one more rep in the gym, soon spread into general vernacular. Now while it may be appropriate to think in these terms (within reason) when embarking on a training regime, it should be left in the gym and has no place on the massage table.

Pain is our bodies most sophisticated defence mechanism. People born without the ability to feel pain generally don’t live very long. It’s our brains way of telling us to “stop doing that, you’re going to damage yourself.” The brain doesn’t always get it right (read What is Pain? for more information about pain and the brain) but that’s no reason to ignore it.

The majority of people I see in clinic have come for treatment because they are in some sort of pain or discomfort and it’s ironic to me that people think to get out of pain they need more pain inflicted on them!! If your muscle tissue is already under stress, be it from trigger points/strains/overuse the last thing it really needs is to be traumatised further.

The other factor to consider in all this is the autonomic nervous system, back to that big ole brain of yours, and how it keeps you alive. As with pain, another way our brain protects us is with the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The fight or flight response can be seen all over the animal kingdom, just watch any David Attenborough programme (love David!) and you’ll see many examples of it in action. For us humans, modern life doesn’t necessarily give us the opportunity to fight or run away from stressful situations – it’s not appropriate to punch or run away from your boss when they’re shouting at you for instance – but your nervous system doesn’t know that and responds in the same way. Your heart beats faster, your breathing rate increases, the blood vessels that go to your muscles dilate, the blood vessels to your stomach constrict, metabolic energy stores (fat and glycogen) are released and there is an increase in your muscle tension ready to provide you with the extra speed and strength you might need.

This very same response occurs when someone is hurting you, even when for apparent ‘therapeutic’ benefits. Essentially you’ll just tense up, your muscles will guard and bounce me out and I’ve never had a client come for a massage because they want to tense up.

Manual therapy should be about working with the clients body and mind to help facilitate their own healing. Releasing trigger points (commonly known as knots) can be uncomfortable at times, but it should be a ‘good’ pain, the type of pain that brings relief. If the work is too deep or inappropriate, it could potentially damage tissues further, leaving you feeling bruised and beaten for days and will certainly elicit a guarding response that will just lead to more discomfort and stress.

So if you’re looking for a painful massage then I’m not the right therapist for you, we’ll both just end up frustrated and disappointed. I’ll only go as deep as your tissues will allow and work well within your pain tolerance because that makes sense to me. Causing pain to someone in pain is just completely counterintuitive to me.
If you’re looking for no pain – all gain, a therapist to help you understand and recover from your pain condition in a sensitive manner then give me a call.

Jemma Fordham is a clinical massage therapist who specialises in the treatment of chronic pain conditions based in Brighton. She works with her clients to help facilitate their bodies own healing through bodywork, exercise and education.

If you would like more information or need to book an appointment please call 07843 666 806 or use this form.

Posted in massage, Pain.


  1. Really good article thanx Gemma, I totally agree with no pain no gain, but struggling working with a new group off clients that haven’t experienced trigger points before and Evan though I only work up to a there level off 6 or 7 I get the impression this is too much. One made a comment she didn’t like the crunch noise. How do you work trigger point work that can be very sensitive to no pain no gain?

  2. Hi Ema,
    You don’t need to go up to a 6/7 on the pain scale to do effective trigger point work. Ease up on your pressure and don’t go above a 4/5 if you feel it is too much for your client. Make sure you incorporate lots of broad work before you do any deeper trigger point work so your clients are used to your touch and their body isn’t guarding against you.

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