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Myofascial Release and Massage Therapy: Understanding the difference

Have you ever had seriously stiff muscles or muscle soreness that won’t go away, you may have been told to try some myofascial release (MFR). So far so good, but is MFR just another way of saying deep tissue massage? Not exactly.

Myofascial release is a type of massage, but there are differences between MFR and conventional massage therapy.

Let’s examine these differences.

Massage is an incredibly popular treatment and has been around since Hippocrates. But as we know, just because something has been around for a long time doesn’t mean that it is good. Old ideas may be bad, and new ideas may be good.

However, it’s safe to say that massage has proven itself over time due to its fantastic therapeutic and relaxation benefits.

What is massage therapy?

‘Massage therapy’ focuses on the body’s musculature and soft tissue. Massage therapists alleviate tension and stress through pressure and manipulation of the tissues. Typically, the massage therapist performs a lot of kneading and stroking of the muscles, and may use some type of lubricant to assist with smooth and relaxing motion.

What is myofascial release?

‘Myofascial release’ is also a soft tissue therapy and is used for the treatment of skeletal muscle immobility and pain. It focuses primarily on the fascia and other connective tissues (Noting that some professionals say that all connective tissue could be described as fascia.)

Our fascia is the biological fabric that holds us together. It is a thin, tough, but elastic type of connective tissue that wraps around most of the structures in our body, including our muscles, providing support.

It is believed that our fascia can tighten; constricting our muscles, decreasing blood supply, causing pain and decreasing range of movement.

It’s not exactly known why fascia can tighten, but osteopathic theory suggests that tightness may be caused by overuse, disease, trauma, infection or inactivity.

The aim of myofascial release is to relax contracted muscles, improve lymphatic and blood circulation, and stimulate the ‘stretch reflex’, in our muscles.

With myofascial release, gentle, sustained pressure is applied to loosen and lengthen the constricting fascia. During this time, the practitioner may work on breaking down adhesions between the tissues. It may take several minutes for each specific area to be worked on for the tissues to be softened and re-aligned. This is generally done without the use of lubricants as the therapist needs to be able to accurately feel and manipulate the fibres of the fascia.

Types of MFR

Myofascial release can be broken down into two categories: direct and indirect release.

  • Direct release is sometimes known as “deep tissue work” which is a misnomer as some of the muscles lie on the surface of the body (superficially). This method uses force or weight, with practitioners using tools, knuckles or elbows to slowly stretch the fascia, hoping to bring about elongation and mobility.

  • Indirect release is a gentler method where the practitioner applies less pressure, encouraging the fascia to slowly ‘unwind’ itself until greater movement is achieved.

Foam rolling: self-myofascial release!

Recently, foam rolling has become externally popular amongst athletes and the wider population due to its ability to release hypertonic muscles. Its popularity is partly because individuals can self-treat their bodies, using the basic principles of myofascial release. Foam rolling is used to treat all major muscles in the body, but, in particular, it works successfully on the glutes and piriformis muscles, adductors, quadriceps, gastrocnemius, hamstrings and hip flexors. For office workers, it’s been a popular tool to address pain and tightness in the thoracic spine and shoulders, such as the trapezius and rhomboids.

Origins of myofascial therapy

Myofascial release therapy has been around since the 1940s, where it was simply referred to as ‘myofascial’ work and used when describing trigger points and musculoskeletal pain syndromes. In the 1960s, osteopath Robert Ward, (who studied under the now famous Ida Rolfe, originator of the Rolfing technique, and physical therapist John Barnes) is considered to have founded MFR. The technique is also known as “myofascial therapy” or “myofascial trigger point therapy”, the latter addressing the trigger points rather than purely the connective tissue.

Although the therapeutic benefits of myofascial release are still not scientifically clear, there are many advocates in favour of the treatment. Thomas Myers, one of today’s acknowledged experts on myofascial release techniques, calls MFR a “shape shifter” and says that immensely positive changes can occur, both physically and mentally through MFR.

Keep in mind, MFR may be quite intense, so it pays to play it safe. People should not succumb to intense treatments where there is a lot of pressure and pain, as this may bruise the muscles and even cause a chronic pain state known as “central sensitisation”. This is a serious condition that could last for anything from a week or potentially much longer. Always make sure you are in the hands of an experienced myfoscial release professional before choosing MFR threapy.

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