What is Fascia?
Myofascial release is a controversial concept. It is generally agreed that fascia:
~ is a fine web of collagenous connective tissue that permeates the whole body, blending into muscles, bones, organs and all other structures.
~ is incredibly strong. When tested under load it demonstrates a similar strength to steel, around 2000lbs per square inch.
~ is capable of eliciting pain, i.e. pain can be felt in the fascia.
~ is immediately responsive to both internal and external stimuli and as such its major role is to transfer load or stress across the body in response to impact.
Why is it Controversial?
Because of rigorous studies that demonstrate the tensile strength of fascia, it becomes unclear how we as therapists can influence it, ‘release’ it, or get it to relax. There are simply not yet enough clear and conclusive studies on both sides to have a definitive answer.
However, it is claimed that fascia has unusual properties – it consolidates under load to either resist or transmit it, but appears to ‘relax’ and ease its tension under very gentle pressure (for example everyday moving).
Imagine stamping on wet sand – it becomes hard and resistant. Then place your fingertips on the same patch of sand and gently push into it – the sand allows your fingers to move into it. This unusual property is how fascia both transfers strong impact across our bodies (so our feet don’t break when we run, for example) but also allows great flexibility for us to move well.
Repetitive impact, injury, surgery and scarring can all have an effect on the fascia. As we go through our lives we all develop areas of fascia that are more dense, or more ‘tense’, depending on the load we ask it to take. Over time, this can have an effect on the local area, perhaps causing pain or restricted movement, but can also have effects seemingly distant in the same body. For example, a lady suffering from tension headaches received treatment to the head and neck but yielded no success. Working further afield, fascial tension was discovered in her mid-back, on the opposite side to her headache. On releasing this, her headaches were relieved.
How does it work?
Myofascial release can be thought of as persuading the fascia to release, rather than the therapist doing anything forceful to break it down. Research is increasingly coming to find that tension, and pain, anywhere in the body is controlled and moderated by the brain. The ‘default’ state of muscle is to be in contraction (hence those with neurological conditions are often trapped in a deeply flexed position of spasm) – it is our brains that override this default to allow smooth controlled movement.
In the same way, it is possible that via gentle touch and following the body’s tensions and places of ease, we are influencing the brain to ‘release’ the fascia and return to a resting state.
How might I Benefit from Myofascial Release?
This technique is appealing for a number of reasons. It is a very gentle process, and generally should be pain free. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (Rest and Digest) which makes the person feel calm and relaxed.
It tends to be long-lasting. Muscles that have been massaged and eased through that method may well stiffen up again over a matter of days if the same habits are returned to. Though fascia can also return to a dysfunctional state it tends to take a lot longer as it plays a more complex role than muscle in the body.
It can also release long-held emotions. Though this is very subjective, it is becoming more accepted that as the brain controls the level of tension in the muscles and fascia, then emotions and memories can also affect our physical body. Release, or realisation, of these feelings can be upsetting at the time, but overall can be seen as a positive outcome for the body and mind.
What is Myofascial Release? A Good Feeling
“Myofascial release is a soft tissue technique unlike any other I’ve tried before. Rather than pushing muscles around, kneading knots and squeezing shoulders, ‘MFR’ is all about lengthening, elongating, letting go… giving in… and yes, it feels good. I can only describe it as a ‘laying on of hands’, which of course sounds rather biblical, something I’m not all that comfy with. However, as physical therapists, we are woefully remiss if we ignore the incredible finesse of our sense of touch: this technique requires us to re-focus on it… it demands I ‘know how I’m feeling’…”