When you were a kid, you probably had a parent, sibling, or friend tickle you. While this is loads of fun for the tickler, it can be torture for the “tickle-ee.” It may start off with the giggles, but it usually ends with fisticuffs. Or, maybe that was just my experience! When we reach adulthood, we usually stop tickling others; but many people still are highly susceptible to the giggles when being touched in certain areas. As a massage therapist, I have found that many people who dislike massage, (or massage on certain areas of the body) feel this way because they are ticklish. When you are ticklish, being massaged by incapable hands can be unpleasant to downright traumatizing. Just in case you had any doubts about how bad unwanted tickling can be, throughout history, tickle torture has been used by governments to punish people. As a former (and sometimes still) ticklish person myself, I get a little testy with my MT colleagues who steamroll my tender hamstrings with their forearms and sigh heavily when my involuntary giggling interrupts their routine. I am here to say that ticklishness is treatable, as long as you are in capable hands.
There are two forms of “tickling.” One is called knismesis, which is a lot like the sensation of a bug crawling on your skin. It is caused by light pressure, doesn’t elicit a laughter response, and it is mostly just annoying. The second type, gargalesis, is the most common type to occur during massage. It is caused by deeper strokes and likely provokes involuntary laughter.
There are many theories about why people are ticklish. Some scientists think that the act of tickling another person (mostly children) is to teach them combat skills and reflexes. Our ancestors tickled their offspring to help teach them how to defend themselves in the wild. This makes sense when you consider that the most common ticklish places are those that would be vulnerable to injury in combat (ribs, under arms, neck, abdomen, etc.). A University of Iowa psychiatrist, Donald Black has observed that most ticklish spots are found in the same spots where the body has protective reflexes.
Many massage therapists believe and have been taught that the tickle response is a mask for pain. While this has not been empirically proven, one could make the assumption based on the previous research that the body could be guarding itself for some reason. The client may be stressed so the body is hypervigilant. The client could have some myofascial injury that the body is trying to protect. There is also the possibility that past physical or sexual trauma can illicit the body’s guarding response. With the limited research on ticklishness, diagnosing the “why” is likely impossible and certainly out of my scope of practice. However, there are some things I can do to help the client:
1. Warm up the tissue: Many MTs make the mistake of wanting to go too deep too soon. The tissue needs to be worked with to warm up and get acclimated to the touch. This is an important step in gaining trust with the client. When you have trust, the client relaxes. When the client is relaxed…this is where massage therapy actually begins.
2. Touch with certainty: This is also incorporating the previous mentioned notion of client trust. It’s kind of an abstract, intuitive concept. Humor me, and try this experiment: Have a friend close their eyes. Touch their arm gingerly and unsteadily with a few fingers. Now with warmth and focus, place your palm on their arm. Ask them what they felt. What were the differences between the two touches? Did they feel differently after each touch? Was anything communicated after each touch? Touch can communicate volumes, and in this field, it’s important to communicate safety, certainty, and trust.
3. Use a broad surface: Using fingers and thumbs to poke and prod will launch any touch-sensitive client off the table. The palm of the hand or even the forearm are good tools that cover a broad area.
4. SLOW DOWN!: The massage therapist can’t take a battering ram to ticklishness. They will need to go at a snail’s pace.
5. Lighten up (maybe!): The tickle response can be caused by light AND firm pressure. I generally find that if you properly warm up the tissue and are going slow enough you shouldn’t have to lighten the pressure. However, every body is different, and it may be necessary to lighten the pressure.
6. Give it time: If you are ticklish, you may need to work with the same MT for several sessions to feel comfortable enough to relax. It’s important to feel secure with your massage therapist, and this might require several sessions before even touching very ticklish areas on your body. Have patience with yourself and find a massage therapist who has patience with you.
7. Talk about it: Tell your MT if certain movements make you more ticklish than others. Tell them when you are feeling ticklish. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, and it will likely cause you to guard your body even more making the MTs job harder.
If you are prone to touch sensitivity, you may just have been victim to an MT who was trying to go too deep too fast. At the beginning of a session, tell your MT that you are ticklish and where. Also specify whether you want certain areas avoided. I find that in the right hands, even the most ticklish, giggly client can enjoy massage and even benefit greatly from it. If you have previously shied away from massage therapy because you are ticklish, I implore you to give it another shot. Help is out there!
If you are a fellow ticklish person in the Northwest Arkansas area, I would love to help you. Call 479-301-2800 for an appointment!