Myofascial Release Wiki

Fascia is the most abundant substance in the body, and is probably the most misunderstood and overlooked, too. This is due in no small part to hundreds of years of anatomists removing this substance during dissections in order to reveal the 'important' structures underneath.

Far from being the "inert ground substance" that used to be taught in anatomy and physiology, fascia is fundamental to fine motor control in movement, and is intimately involved in the experience of pain and in the construction of our emotional selves.

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An Introduction to Stretching for Myofascial Release

What is myofascia?

Until recently, anatomists regarded the fascia of the body (the white, thin material you see around and in between cuts of meat at a butcher's) as “inert, ground substance” – the stuff you cut away in dissections to reveal the real, inner workings of the body: that is, its muscles, tendons, ligaments, and internal organs. Anatomists have taken this approach to fascia for five hundred years, until the last fifteen years or so.

Fascia is ubiquitous in the body, surrounding and permeating all structures. It is, in fact, the most abundant tissue in the body, but this needs qualification. In the womb, the developing foetus is all fascia until tissue differentiation occurs – the fascia that becomes bone, for example, attracts minerals out of the bloodstream and it hardens to form the material that is familiar to us; the fascia that occupies the lower right-hand side of the abdomen differentiates itself into becoming a new liver, and so on. The term “myofascial” simply means “muscle and fascia”.

Recent research and developments in anatomy, largely beginning with research that began in the Rolfing* community, has shown that, far from being inert, fascia is permeated with all the neural structures of other soft tissues in the body: all nerve types** are found there, and fascia has more pain receptors than muscles do! But it’s fascia’s mechanical and neural properties that has attracted the most research interest: fascia is, largely, how we feel our body and its position in space. The proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors in fascia fine-tune muscular actions. Remember the last time you picked up a glass for example, and you thought it was glass but it was plastic – it flew off the table quicker than you expected, and then you quickly modified the force that you are using – that is fascia in action.

Speaking broadly, fascia composes a gel-like substance (mucopolysaccharide, a mucus-like semi-liquid) that contains the longest molecules in the body (collagen, elastin, and reticulin) and collectively, this substance has contractile properties as well as being among the 'first responders’ in any injury, following the inflammatory response. And fascia is what you injure when you ‘pull’ a muscle. The superficial fascia is found just under the skin (and an image of it without the skin covering looks like a body suit) and there are numerous deeper layers, too, that follow the lines of force the body has experienced in the past. Weight training strengthens fascia and movement and flexibility training makes it more supple and ’stretchy’.

Until recently, most researchers thought that the viscosity of fascia was related to your hydration regime (how much water you consume) but this turns out to be false: it is your movement regime that keeps fascia supple. And, conversely, a lack of movement can allow fascia to “stick” or “gum up”. Fascia can adhere to adjacent muscle, or it can simply lose its extensibility and suppleness. Many so-called muscular aches and pains are related to this aspect of fascia.

YouTube has many fascinating videos on fascia, which in life looks nothing like the illustrations modern textbooks show; here is one of my favourites:  (“Strolling under the skin”, which uses an endoscope to show what fascia looks like in a moving, living body).

And because the body is constantly adapting to constraints it experiences in daily life, any restriction to movement will change one's movement patterns in time, and not only will those patterns become fixed in the body (as the fascia adapts by thickening and strengthening), but they become fixed in that part of the brain that “records” our movement patterns, the somatosensory cortex.

*Rolfing: a school of body work started by Dr Ida Rolf
**Pacinian, Ruffini, and Meissner corpuscles; Merkel’s disks, and C-fibre LTMs (low threshold mechanoreceptors), as well as type-C nociceptive structures (pain signaling) and Golgi tendon organs. Together, these endow fascia with sensing, pain signaling, and contractile properties. Fascia is alive, in other words!

What is Myofascial Release?

This term refers to a variety of manual and other techniques that help the fascia to regain its fundamental slipperiness.

The goals of these techniques, while underpinned by very different theoretical foundations, can be seen as similar in at least one way: their goal is restoration of desirable movement and the reduction of any pain that is related to restrictions in this.

Because fascia responds positively to movement, all movement practises can be considered “myofascial releases”, too, though the effects are usually slower to become apparent than what direct manual intervention can provide. On the other hand, the development of a movement and flexibility practise will ensure that any new range of movement, or “ROM" (no matter how achieved) will be ‘embodied’ by the practise – the take-home message is the familiar “use it or lose it”.

Myofascial Release FAQs

What are myofascial release techniques?

Chiropractors use "Graston tools” to effect myofascial release; the use of these tools is said to change the state of fascia. Other schools like osteopathy use devices that impart energy to the same tissues, and to the same end, like the Percussor and various other massage tools; and Oriental medicine has a scraping technique called Gua Sha. Manual techniques include deep tissue massage, shiatsu (literally “finger pressure”) from Japan, the Traeger approach, Hellerwork, and Rolfing; there are a huge number of different schools.

Stretch Therapy works with the whole body, and can preferentially address fascial restrictions and adhesions over muscle tightness if necessary. See below.

How does myofascial release work?

There are many theories that try to explain how myofascial release is achieved, at the chemical, neural, and mechanical/hydrological levels of analysis, but in the opinion of this author, none is satisfactory. The reason is that the lived experience is not an explicit part of the account – and our experience shows that if a change in length of a muscle, or the length–tension relationship of any muscles in the body is not experienced, there is no permanent change. This position is supported by a number of studies run in the Rolfing community, where a colleague had his ROM tested; he was then anaesthetised and given standard rolfing interventions by skilled practitioners; and after he regained consciousness, his ROMs were tested and found to be unchanged. The researchers’ conclusions were that if the patient is not consciously aware of, and does not directly experience the changes in the range of movement during and after a treatment, then effectively they did not happen.

Standard accounts of how myofascial release works include the addition of energy to the system, which changes the fascia from a more solid-like state to a more gel-like state; mechanical accounts include the physical separation of adhesions between the fascia and adjoining tissues, which allows new movement; and neural accounts focus on the remapping of the somatosensory cortex, where the ‘map’ of one’s ROM is ’stored’.

What are the immediate effects of myofascial release?

You will feel an increase in range of movement of any of the affected parts of the body, and a reduction of the experience of pain related to that movement if it was painful.

How do you know if you need myofascial release?

If you experience a ‘block’ to movements you need, then myofascial release can be very helpful, and especially if ordinary static stretching has not been effective. One of the significant benefits of working with an experienced practitioner is that you will be gently encouraged to explore ROMs that you otherwise would not, and the practitioner can add his or her manual skills to the process, too (as when an adhesion is released manually).

Perhaps paradoxically, stretching is one of the best ways to find those small locations in your body where a myofascial release can be so helpful – you won't find these unless you have the experience of trying to stretch the area – it will just feel 'blocked'. And in particular, RollStretch is perfectly suited to these local, stuck areas. A session of RollStretch followed up with the stretching exercise that identified the block in the first place often reveals that the block has disappeared completely.

What does fascia release feel like?

Some of the intervention techniques are momentarily quite uncomfortable, even painful, but the new movement and the sense of relaxation that accompanies the attainment of new ROM is liberating, and feels wonderful!

What is the difference between Rolfing and myofascial release?

Typically, Rolfing is a ten-session interaction (sessions are usually done weekly) and “whole body integration” is the goal. For a more detailed explanation, look up “Rolfing Structural Integration”. Myofascial release is a large part of the work, and many releases will be achieved in a typical set of sessions.

What are the risks of myofascial release?

None that this author is aware of.

How often can you do myofascial release?

I recommend weekly as a starting point, but the frequency of work depends on your body’s capacity to recover from the intervention coupled with your state of health. Perhaps paradoxically, the less well you are, the less often this kind of intervention should be sought, and frequency of treatment can be increased as one’s health and function returns. Is because the less well one is, the more slowly one recovers from any intervention.

Who provides myofascial release therapy?

All of the practitioners mentioned above, but also some kinds of massage therapists, deep tissue therapists, and the other bodywork schools mentioned above. Myotherapists target myofascia explicitly.

Who might benefit from myofascial release?

Everyone – the question to ask yourself is, ‘is anything stuck in my life right now?’ and if the answer is, ‘yes’, then consider seeking some body work that specifically addresses fascia.

What is myofascial pain syndrome?

This is a chronic pain situation – “chronic” means that it is unchanging. The experience of myofascial pain syndrome is an increased sensitivity to physical pressure on parts of the body and mild to severe pain in the muscles that persists. Treatments include gentle stretching and body work. If any pain in the body is unchanging, seek the help of a practitioner.

What does fascia have to do with pain?

The question is too broad to have a simple answer. Fascia can have everything to do with pain or nothing—it depends on the cause(s) of the pain.

Does science support myofascial release?

Strictly speaking, science does not support, or validate, or prove, any system. On the other hand, there is an emerging body of work that appears to show myofascial release’s effectiveness but all current studies are statistical in nature – if, for example, studies show that myofascial release is effective in 50% of patients, how do you know which group you will be in? The answer is that you cannot, not without having fascial release done on you. In other words, science is not useful here; you have to try it for yourself.

How do you break up cellulite fascia?

According to some research, cellulite fascia can be ‘broken up’ by myofascial release, or by massage devices designed to affect cellulite. We (Stretch Therapy) have no experience in this area.

What happens when fascia is tight?

Dr Robert Schleip (Director of Ulm University's Fascial Research Centre) conceptually arrays fascial types on a continuum, from ‘Balinese temple dancer” through to “Viking fascia”, and this continuum spans loose fascia and often looser joints through to tight facia and tight joints.  Each of us will find ourselves somewhere on this continuum. The upside of looser fascia is innately greater flexibility, but the downside is the potential for joint instability. On the other hand, Viking fascia is associated with less innate flexibility, but greater joint stability, and a greater capacity to build strength in the body. No matter where you find yourself on this continuum, stretching will help tight fascia, and strength training will help loose fascia.

Should you ice after myofascial release?

Icing after myofascial release is not necessary, and in fact may inhibit the improved circulation that usually results from this kind of release. Heat therapy (or a hot bath) is the more common recommendation, and that is the one we support.

How does releasing fascia lead to healing?

Myofascial release can promote healing by restoration of desirable function. Notice I did not write, “by restoration of normal function” – ’normal' is a statistical entity, and only describes where around 60% of any representative population sits, with respect to any quality. Very often in health and wellbeing matters, normal is not desirable! Stretch Therapy finds it more useful to consider where one is now, with respect to any goal, and then work on how to get from here to there.

Is myofascial pain the same as fibromyalgia?

Myofascial pain mainly affects the muscles in the body, whereas fibromyalgia affects other systems in the body as well.

What can you tell me about myofascial release therapy as a treatment for back pain?

We suggest you visit our back pain relief wiki, which we believe is one of the most useful resources available for utilising stretching to provide back pain relief.

Myofascial Release Articles

Fascia is a fascinating and complex part of the human body that has recently been researched more intensely by scientists. The research revealed fascia to be permeated with all types of neural structures, including pain receptors. Discover all of the Stretch Therapy articles about myofascial release below.

How Stretch Therapy Addresses Myofascial Release

Stretch Therapy identified the critical role of fascia in both pain and range of movement considerations in the first publication of Overcome Neck & Back Pain way back in 1995. Stretch Therapy has been on the forefront of best practise with respect to how this tissue can be effectively worked with, and we have liaised with a number of leading researchers in this area from the very early days.

Stretch Therapy explicitly incorporates practical and effective techniques for working with fascia: after the use of a number of neural reflexes* to reduce the restrictions to movement that result from an overly active protective mechanism, a new end position is held, but at a slightly reduced tension level, and as the whole body relaxes, small movements are added to the position. We have found that long-held positions (typically 4–5 minutes) affects fascia measurably, and this can be assessed both by the student (in terms of how they feel, and how a particular movement pattern may have changed) and by the practitioner (objective measurements of ROM pre- and post-exercise). Because the ST method has techniques that directly affect the systems mentioned above (releasing adhesions, facilitating fascial ‘creep’, where the elongation of fascia is directly experienced, and the best methods of using the tissues of the body to communicate directly with the somatosensory cortex to remap the mind’s belief of the body’s capacities) it is one of the most effective self-help systems available for this purpose. Other aspects of the ST system are whole-body strengthening, beneficial repatterning of less than optimal movement patterns, specific additions to all exercises that make them affect the neural systems more directly (that is, the capacity to shift the emphasis from muscles to the nerves themselves, particularly the brachial plexus and the sciatic nerve) are all aspects of the system.

The RollStretch techniques, a sub-set of Stretch Therapy, directly address the fascial dimension of experience. RollStretch includes rolling over objects of varying hardness; the use of sticks and other tools to effect fascial releases; and specific exercise techniques that target fascia preferentially over the other structures of the body. [Scroll down to the Videos section below to view some RollStretch exercises. We will soon release a full RollStretch Video Course, too.]

*Interested readers will find an analysis of the three reflexes we use to change ROM: the reciprocal inhibition reflex, the post contraction inhibition reflex, and one we named, the apprehension reflex in Overcome Neck & Back Pain, now in its 4th edition.

Another reference will be found here


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