Myofascial Release for Dummies
So there’s a lot more talk in the fitness and wellness industries about myofascial release these days which I guess is a good thing in some ways but not so good in others. It seems like everyone who does body work claims to also do myofascial release and that’s not exactly accurate. There are also a bunch of other techniques that involve the use of scary implements that claim to “treat” the fascia but again, that’s not exactly accurate either. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain what exactly fascia is and its function in the body and dispel some myths about fascial work (or myofascial release).
Fascia is often described as connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs in the body. While this description is true, it provides only a very basic idea of the function of this important tissue. Fascia is a three dimensional web of tiny tubes filled with a gel-like substance that surrounds and connects every cell in the body. That’s right, every cell! So it affects how all of our cells function, which means it also affects how all of our muscles, joints and organs function (or don’t function as the case may be.) Think of fascia as a fibre optic network that transmits information (energy) to all the systems of the body because that is essentially what it does through the fluid inside the tiny tubes.
Problems (illness, disease, pain, etc) arise when the fascia becomes tight and hard from inflammation. Fascia can put up to 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure on whatever it is surrounding, so it’s no surprise that so many people are living with chronic pain! Think about that - 2000 pounds on your lower back or your neck or your heart or lungs or brain. Even 100 pounds of pressure is an unbelievable amount and would cause a lot of problems. Tightness in the fascial system will also cause cells to stop functioning properly. What do you think happens when cells can’t work properly? They are forced to mutate and adapt to their environment. Guess which disease starts with cell mutation? That’s right – cancer! Guess which disease is caused by inflammation? That’s right, all of them!!! And what causes inflammation? Stress, certain foods, strenuous exercise, sugar, alcohol, certain drugs/medications, injuries and trauma (mental, emotional and physical). So it seems pretty obvious to me that an unhealthy or imbalanced lifestyle will result in an unhealthy fascial system and can lead to a lot of serious problems.
There a few ways to tell if your fascia is tight or restricted. The most obvious sign is that your soft tissue doesn’t feel soft. Now I’m talking about when you’re sitting or lying in a relaxed position. How do your muscles feel? How does your abdomen feel? Contrary to what we’ve been told for years and years, we don’t want our bodies to be tight, we need them to move freely and easily. You should be able to sink your hand into your belly easily with no resistance. Your muscles shouldn’t be hard unless you are contracting them. Think raw steak vs. beef jerky – if your body at rest feels more like beef jerky than raw steak, you’ve got fascial restriction. If you can’t access certain ranges of motion, it’s because of fascial restriction.
So what can you do about it? Well you can have an honest look at your life and see what areas need to change. Do you have a lot of stress in your life? Do you not move enough? Do you exercise too much? Do you eat real food or things from packages? Are you living the life you really want or just going through the motions and doing things because that’s what you were told you should want? Do you have an injury that has never been treated properly? These are just a handful of things to consider changing in order to begin to feel better. Of course you can seek outside help for any or all of these problems if you feel you need extra help. While I believe it’s possible to change so many things without help from others, it can be an overwhelming task and it’s easy to get sidetracked and lose momentum. Asking for help is not a bad thing and in fact, can be the most beneficial way to make lasting, effective changes. As a therapist, I treat myself on an almost daily basis but I also get treated by other therapists as much as I can because it is helpful to get someone else’s perspective, as well as a different approach to whatever problem I am dealing with. However, if you expect someone else to “fix” you, thinking you don’t have to do any of the work, then you are not going to get good or lasting results. Things will not change for long if you start seeing a therapist but don’t do anything else differently.
Now let’s talk about some myths of myofascial release treatment. There are a handful of schools that teach myofascial release – it’s also called Rolfing, structural integration, Graston Technique, Active Release Therapy, etc. The common theme among most of these types of fascial work is that they are fairly aggressive most of the time. I would even argue that Graston Technique isn’t fascial work because it requires a gel on the skin so the steel bar slides over it better- the application of any lotion, gel or oil prevents effective engagement of the fascia. If you are sliding over the skin, you aren’t truly affecting the fascia in a helpful way.
One of the biggest reactions I get from people when I mention myofascial release is that it’s painful and this is another problem. If the treatment is overly painful because the therapist is forcing the tissue, the body is not going to release very easily (if at all) because it is too busy trying to protect itself from further injury. Think about it for a moment. What does your body do naturally when it feels pain? It tightens up. This response is the exact opposite of what you are looking to accomplish. The soft tissue doesn’t need to be beaten into submission (unless maybe you’re a masochist and then that’s a whole other issue.) It needs to be challenged a little and can be a bit uncomfortable but you need to be able to let yourself feel whatever is happening so your body can let go of it. This approach is specific to John Barnes’ Myofascial Release. The body doesn’t respond well to being forced to do anything so why does it need to be forced to relax? It doesn’t.
Now I know a lot of you are going to argue that the other techniques I’ve mentioned have been helpful for you and I’m sure they have been to a certain extent. However, they are all what I like to refer to as “fast food fixes”. They are quick (and painful) and the results only last a short time. JFB Myofascial Release is like slow food. It takes longer to do but it doesn’t damage your body at all and the results are much longer lasting. As someone who has tried all of the above-mentioned techniques I write from experience but don’t just take my word for it. Try them all for yourself and see what works best for you.