Friday, October 14, 2011

Myofascial release....Myo-whaaaaa?

I'm going to try to type this entry up with no specific references, no agenda, no outline of where I want the post to go.  Will I wind up tying it up into a nice little package or will I wind up in a long rambling rant?  Or perhaps I'll wind up typing it all up, then going back and proofreading it, editing it and publish something completely different than I began with.  In all likelihood, it means this one will be epic, since I like to explain things too thoroughly...

Whatever it is, I promise that what you will wind up reading will develop organically this time around.  I couldn't tell you why I decided that I want this entry to develop that way, except that maybe I feel that it should unfold in a similar way as a session of myofascial release ("myo" = muscle ; "fascia" = the web of connective soft tissue found all throughout the body, surrounding muscles, tendons, bones, organs, ligaments...).  At least one approach to myofascial release (the John Barnes approach), allows for a session to play out intuitively, through the therapist's ability to empathize and intuit the client's needs, as well as read physical cues.  The combination of cues and intuition can lead therapists to apply their myofascial "holds" in ways that are remarkably relevant to clients' often unspoken physical needs.  I have been on both ends of this process, and it is
simultaneously eerie, refreshing, exciting and reassuring.  But the end result is almost always eye-opening.  The John Barnes method allows for and encourages the incorporation of emotional release, along with the physical release.  When one experiences a trauma of a physical nature, there is also an emotional effect and manifestation.  Likewise, an emotional trauma typically also manifests itself physically.  Either kind of trauma and its complementary manifestation can create a self-feeding loop of trauma, manifestation, trauma.

If the physical and emotional traumas and manifestations are so intertwined, then it seems silly to try to separate them in the process of treatment.  Emotional releases are a known occurrence in the field of massage therapy, and massage therapists are trained to handle and normalize such occurrences.  John Barnes, and his approach to myofascial release (MFR), wholly embraces the simultaneous emotional and physical treatments, and encourages the emotional releases, or "unwindings."

I really hope that doesn't scare anyone off from's just one approach to it, and the active/intentional integration of the emotional element is NOT necessary for effective MFR work.  In fact, there are a LOT of more clinical, and deliberate practitioners espousing the benefits of MFR to treat specific injuries and conditions.  I've even heard a couple well-known and respected orthopedic and sports massage therapists say that they always begin their treatments with a myofascial technique.  They feel that they are working much harder than necessary if they don't.  Their experience indicates that the release in the fascia surrounding target muscles & tendons allows more space for those structures to "open up" into.  Think of a balloon animal artist (aka "clown") - before they begin filling a balloon with air, they often stretch it out.  They "relax" the balloon a little, making it easier for the air to fill it.  The balloon is like your fascia, and the air is sort of like your muscles and tendons. (It's not the strongest analogy I can come up with, but it does work, and I thought it was amusing, so I went with it.)

So, on a very basic, clinical, structural level, it just makes sense to treat the fascia first, since it will make treating the other target structures an awful lot easier.

MFR is not practiced with moving strokes like most massage is. Rather, it's performed with almost entirely static "holds." These holds can last quite a long time - several minutes, each. I believe that it's because of this that many clients don't feel like the practitioner is "doing" anything. In a sense, I suppose you could say the practitioner isn't...the fascia almost seems to just take a cue from the practitioner and move through its own release at its own rate. Impressively, the other soft tissue that the targeted fascia surrounds tends to also follow suit and release, as well.

There are even some conditions which MFR seems better suited to treat than massage. Most notably is hip imbalance. Almost all of us are likely to have some degree of imbalance in or hips. While massage can address this, it can take a great deal of time and effort to get modest results. On the other hand, a single 20-30 minute MFR session can have a remarkable effect on hip imbalances-I can speak from experience, having received, observed and performed hip balancing MFR. Why might this matter, you ask? Just think about it, if your hips are out of whack, then your spine is going to have to compensate in order to keep you upright...then comes the low back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, headaches, or any of a number of other possibilities.

So, I realize that this is going on and on, and I will try to wrap it up, now.

I hope what you take away from this is an expanded perspective on bodywork and massage. Fascia has gradually been getting its due as an important part of the body's system of movement and the treatment of the fascia has been gaining a lot of attention and support in a number of arenas. I believe that the public awareness of fascia and MFR is going to continue to grow, until it is a treatment modality at least as common as massage.  As a client and as a practitioner of some MFR, I sure hope that's the case.

As always, I welcome your questions or comments about this, or anything else bodywork related.