Whether it’s a new or regular client, a tendency towards ticklishness can arise at virtually any moment. There are many interpretations of what ticklishness is, and what a massage therapist can do about it. Our experts have assembled the latest information to keep you informed and help you make the best decisions for your ticklish clients.
Why Are Some People Ticklish?
Ticklishness is a sensation and subsequent response separate from pain, itch or pressure. In general, touch receptors interpret skin sensation, by translating movement or distortion of the cell membrane. A lack of understanding surrounds the tickle sensation because it is not one of the currently known touch receptors, which include temperature, pain, light pressure and deep pressure.
Most sensation and perception scholars claim that the brain, not skin receptors, distinguishes tickling from other types of touch. Because you can’t tickle yourself, the evidence points to the brain’s responsibility for ticklishness. Touch receptors in the skin do not know the difference between your touch and someone else’s, but the brain is aware of whose hand is tickling you.
In addition to physical touch, the tickle response appears to require the brain’s interpretation of tension or suspense. In fact, tension or suspense is so important that some people react to the anticipation of being tickled in the same way as they do when actually being tickled. Again, this is suggestive of the brain’s role in perceiving ticklishness, since a tickle response from anticipation does not involve skin receptor stimulation.
Acquiring sensitivity to ticklish stimuli might have been useful in our evolutionary past, says Robert R. Provine, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Maryland. Highly ticklish locations are parts of the body most vulnerable to injury, such as our feet, neck, chest and armpits. For example, feeling a tickle would have warned us if a poisonous scorpion was crawling along our neck.
When it comes to a ticklish response during massage, a number of factors can come into play:
- Nervousness or discomfort with touch
- Anxiety or vulnerability with wearing no or minimal clothing
- Tension held in particular areas of the body
- Uneasiness with unknown or unpredictable touch
- Excessive or stagnant energy in the area being worked
Communication, sequencing, pressure modification, pacing, stroke choice, emotional release or avoidance should all be considered when working with a ticklish individual.
- Communication is the most important factor in administering massage to a ticklish person. Asking a client what their preferences are regarding their ticklishness will guarantee they have an optimal experience with you.
- Sequencing can allow the recipient to relax into your touch before you reach more sensitive locations. The back is typically one of the least threatening areas for massage, followed by the limbs, neck and head. With thoughtful sequencing, the client is able to develop a level of comfort and safety by the time the therapist reaches more sensitive areas, such as the feet, legs, chest and abdomen.
- Pressure modification can completely alter the course of a ticklish session. In general, broadening and increasing your pressure will reduce ticklishness. These modifications reduce the element of suspense that initiates many tickle responses. Additionally, the University of Miami Research Institute’s director, Tiffany Field, PhD, says, “The reason it seems moderate pressure is more effective than light is that light pressure is experienced like a tickle stimulus, it’s arousing.”
- Slowing the pace of massage strokes is favored by many ticklish massage recipients. Moving quickly along the skin prohibits the client from predicting where the therapist’s hands are heading. Applying a stroke very slowly will immediately calm that apprehension. For the extremely sensitive client, it may be necessary to stop and simply hold the hands on one location for a few minutes.
- Stroke choice is another consideration when working with a ticklish individual. Similar to applying broad pressure, choosing a stroke with large surface area contact reduces anticipation of the spot to be addressed next. Petrissage is a good stroke choice because its calming effect reduces tension and its application covers a broad enough area to reduce suspense.
- Release of the emotional component creating the tickle response can be an extremely healing event. It is critical to approach this within your ethical boundaries and to have a willing recipient, requiring intensive communication between client and practitioner. In order for a client to request intensive work on their ticklish spots, they need to be emotionally prepared. Because ticklishness is often a protective mechanism, focusing on such an area can promote a powerful release. While most therapists are accustomed to emotional releases in the form of tears, laughter can be just as effective.
- Avoidance of the ticklish area is typically a comfortable choice for both practitioners and clients. Again, this requires astute communication, to determine the location to work around and if avoidance is the client’s preference.
Understanding the physiological and emotional aspects of a tickle response can help any professional using touch within their line of work. Learn and experiment with the seven presented tickle tips to be proactive with your clients expressing issues around ticklishness. Learning how to work with each individual’s ticklishness will enhance your skills and benefit your practice.
Vanderbilt, Shirley, Moderate vs. Light Pressure in Massage, Massage and Bodywork, April/May 2005.
www.boston.com/globe, Why are Some People Not Ticklish?, C.B. Peabody, The Boston Globe.
www.hhmi.org, Ask a Scientist, Neuroscience Question Archives, Lisa Catapano, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 2006.