This is something I hear all the time. Most people assume that a massage is not effective if it is not painful. "No pain no gain" right? Wrong. But of course, as with everything, it's not always so black and white.
So there are two sides to the coin. On one side is, what my mentor called "petting with oil" massages and the other is the "Hard Deep Tissue Massage that Makes You Wanna Cry" massages. And then there is the area in the middle. That's where I try to be.
Obviously you don't want to be pet with oil, unless that's what you want. Even in my normal relaxation swedish massage, I'm still not petting with oil. As I like to say, even in my swedish relaxation massages, "we're still getting work done".
Then there is the "hard painful deep tissue that makes you want to cry" massages. I definitely don't want to be that either, although that's apparently what a lot of people want...or at least what they think they want.
In my opinion, I honestly think that super painful massages are counterproductive. Every person has a certain threshold of pain that they can tolerate. (Women in general have a higher tolerance to pain than men for obvious reasons.) Once beyond that point, the body will do whatever it has to to avoid being in pain. Once a massage is reached that threshold, the body will contract and hold on, tighten up, tense up, whatever you want to call it and when that happens, the massage is no longer helping anything.
The connective tissue of the body is very strong. The fascia, a form of connective tissue, can hold up to 2,000 lbs (pounds) per square inch of pressure. So simply applying more force is useless. The body will tighten up even more to protect itself against the pain.
You can't fight against the body to get it to relax. That won't work. In fact, you need to do the exact opposite. You need to work with the body and get it to relax in order to make any real change. I'm not saying a painful massage is useless, but once it reaches a high enough level of pain, you are fighting the body, a fight that you cannot possibly win (as a therapist and a client).
Most people will tense up and hold on and contract without even realizing it. I can usually figure out pretty quickly if someone has a hard time relaxing. I call these people "Tensors". So when I'm working with a tensor, my main goal is to get them to recognize they're tensing up and get them to relax. Yes, most people have no idea they are holding on and guarding.
Most people are tensors due to high levels of stress. Stress in their daily life, stress in their jobs and relationships, cause them to be in a constant state of guarding and holding on throughout the day, every day.
One of the best things to help tensors relax is by having them take deep diaphragmatic breaths (from the belly). It's a little harder to take a belly breath when you're laying in prone position (on your stomach face down) but it can still be done. Deep belly breaths helps to relax the entire body, even the Nervous System, which is just one of the reasons why Meditation is so helpful.
Look up "Box Breathing", it's a great way to work on your breathing.
It's hard for tensors to relax and let go, but I tell them not to be too hard on themselves, it's a skill like any other and they'll get better with time. If you have a high stress job, doing meditation for just a few minutes in the morning or before you go to bed can help. Doing meditation before bed also may help you to have high quality sleep.
In conclusion, does a massage need to be painful in order to be effective? The answer is no, it doesn't need to be painful to be effective. A little bit of discomfort is okay, but you should definitely not be screaming or ready to cry in pain. One of the things I always tell my clients, is:
"You Should Never Be Sore For More Than Two Days After a Massage". If you're sore for more than two days, you're therapist went wayy too hard. If you go back to that therapist, give them honest feedback and tell them you were sore for a long time and ask them to adjust their pressure next time.
I hope you found this article valuable and that it answered your questions about massages being painful. It you liked this article, please let me know, I would love to hear about it.