In short... if you had a problem with muscle tension ahead of your massage, you should probably expect to feel some change in your muscles afterwards, and yes, that might involve some mild tenderness.
Muscle tenderness is commonly experienced after receiving massage where either the treatment has been either quite deep, or where the muscles were particularly tense to begin with and needed some coaxing to relax.
What sort of 'soreness' are we talking about?
Most people will not experience notable changes in how their muscles feel until the next day.
Typically, the sensation is similar to how muscles feel the day after a good workout at the gym or after a longer period of exercise than usual; your muscles have been manipulated and stretched in a similar way, albeit by the therapist rather than by you. It's technically called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness ('DOMS') and in the case of massage will result from dysfunctional muscles being moved into new positions, from muscular imbalances being addressed and possibly from the breakdown of old scar tissue within the muscles.
Where should I expect to feel sore after my massage?
If you detailed a particular problem to your therapist, they will explain to you before working on you that they need to address the muscles connected to and affecting that area as well as working directly on the area itself, in order to effect your muscle holding patterns.
The areas you feel sore in afterwards may not be directly at the original problem area, but will be connected to it. For example, if a client arrives with pain feeling like tightness in their hips, after assessing information about what might have caused it (an injury, posture, pregnancy etc) the therapist will work all appropriate muscle groups that typically affect the hip bones, ie the lower back, flanks, glutes, thigh muscles, possibly the abdominals and they may feel more noticeable to you afterwards. As you will have noticed from post-exercise muscle tenderness, it's usually the bigger, typically more powerful muscles which you will be most aware of.
Is "no pain, no gain" true for Massage?
This is an outdated view and in my opinion should not be applied to general massage where no muscular dysfunction issues are presented; you can have a really great and beneficial massage and feel no tenderness afterwards whatsoever, in fact arguably, that should be the goal with relaxation and maintenance massage where no muscle pattern adjustment has been required.
However, in the case of someone arriving for massage with pain due to muscular tension patterns, too little pressure being applied will have little affect and is unlikely to help resolve the issue. Conversely, too much pressure will cause the client to tense up further because their body will automatically "guard" against the desired muscle release due to the production of adrenaline (which is designed to prepare the body for fight or flight, in which states having reactive muscles are an evolutionary advantage).
Getting the balance for an effective massage which addresses the client's problem, whilst providing a "feel good" outcome is a daily challenge for therapists. Reactions to massage are very individual and often influenced by mindset as well as by physical response - whilst one person may recognise post massage sensation as a good feeling like they would after an exercise session, another may interpret the same feeling as a worsening of their situation and become disheartened. An upfront discussion and explanation of what the treatment will technically cover goes a long way in helping the client know what to expect, especially if they have not experienced therapeutic massage previously, and a follow up to check that the client understands any sensations they might be experiencing and can ask any questions they have about it is also helpful. Usually, knowing that what they are perceiving is only temporary and a necessary shift in muscle tone to move them into recovery, is enough to settle most concerns.
One therapeutic massage will not 'fix' a chronic muscle issue any more than one jog will make you fit, and most effective treatment schedules involve repeat visits - the good news in terms of post massage soreness is that you'll notice it less and less each time as the imbalance begins to abate.
What can I do to reduce soreness after massage?
All that said, there are things you can do to improve any post massage tenderness you experience, typically it's the same advice as suggested for post exercise soreness:
Increasing your hydration levels.
Taking a hot shower or a soak in a bath, perhaps adding some Epsom salts.
Taking things easy, avoiding very strenuous exercise.
Keeping the affected muscles warm and relaxed, gently stretching them as feels comfortable.
Maintaining normal movement patterns to prevent muscles 'seizing up'.
If the soreness continues beyond a day, consider (only if you are medically profiled to do so safely) taking a pain killer, as this may be helpful in giving your brain time to switch off it's 'on alert!' status and break the pain-signal pattern it has set up for the affected muscles.
[Post Mar 2016 last updated Jan 2024]