by Zoe Macpherson, former Sports & Remedial Massage Therapist with Bristol Massage Therapy
Have you heard of ‘fascia’?
‘Fascia is a specialized tissue system of the body that has an appearance similar to a spider's web or a sweater. Fascia is very densely woven, covering and interpenetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein, as well as all our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord.’ (Barnes J., 2016).
Our 3D fascial system surrounds, protects and wraps all body structures together under the skin and plays a key role in support and function. There are 3 layers of fascia; superficial, deep and visceral fascia. If you peer at a raw chicken breast, you can glimpse fascia up close – it is the smooth, stretchy, shiny white layer wrapping the muscle tissue.
For therapists or clients keen to learn more about this fascinating tissue (who are NOT squeamish), take a look at Dr Gill Hedley (2012) and his YouTube hit - The Fuzz Speech in which he explains the buzz behind the fuzz!
‘In healthy conditions, the fascial system is relaxed and wavy in configuration. This provides a cushioning and supportive mechanism allowing us to move safely without restriction or pain’ (Duncan, 2011)
Over the last 20 years, interest in working with fascia has dramatically increased amongst manual therapists. When we are in good health, our fascial layers can stretch and move freely without constraint. If we suffer a trauma or injury (physical, emotional, inflammation), these fascial layers stiffen and may become restricted, particularly in the deep fascial layer.
Postural habits over the years and repetitive strain injuries may also lead to restrictions, creating unnecessary pulling and tension when we move (Barnes, 2016). Fascia contains a high level of sensory nerves. Fascial restrictions may reduce flexibility and create tension throughout the body, and hence may often be an undiagnosed cause of painful musculoskeletal conditions and mobility problems (Barnes, 2016).
What is ‘myofascial release’ therapy?
Myofascial release (MFR) is a soft tissue manual rehabilitation therapy used worldwide. The aim is to treat the CAUSE of the problem to eliminate symptoms entirely. It is thought by many to be the ‘missing link’ in the bodyworker’s quest to relieve chronic pain. Maintaining healthy, moving fascia is essential to release and encourage movement and ease, ultimately reducing discomfort.
All massage and bodywork treatments will have some effect on fascia. MFR however, focuses solely on improving the function of the fascial system to restore health, while also considering muscles and other tissues. Often bodywork treatments can only provide temporary relief for clients, whereas MFR may produce wide-ranging and long-term results (Duncan, 2014).
Fascial restrictions are not able to be recognised on x-rays or other medical scans, and therefore the source of pain can remain undiagnosed. A myofascial release specialist will be able to work with you to determine the source of your pain, and this is often not where pain is felt! By treating the fascial system, the therapist also influences emotions and memories stored within the tissues and a deep release of both physical and emotional tension is often seen that encourages healing.
Some massage therapists include MFR alongside massage in their treatment sessions, and others specialise purely in MFR. Some MFR therapists have an interest in a specific area, such as women’s health or chronic pain. If you think you may benefit and would like to try this therapy, it is fine for individuals of all ages, including pregnant women and children.
Conditions that may be helped by MFR (Barnes, 2016):
Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Jaw Pain (TMJ)
Infants / Children
Myofascial Pain Syndrome
Women's Health Issues
Other general benefits that may be experienced: (Duncan, 2014)
Less pain and tension
Better digestion and sleep
Improved balance and proprioception
Relaxation and well being
Improved range of motion and joint mobility
How is MFR performed?
MFR is a hands-on therapy that is tailored to your body and symptoms. You will need to undress to underwear / shorts and vest top. The therapist first assesses the whole body to identify fascial restrictions. This may include an assessment of your posture and movement, using both visual observation and palpation.
The therapist uses specialised techniques to apply sustained pressure for a minimum of 5 minutes per technique. This duration is necessary to gain a succesful release and glide in the fascia. No oil is used, because a good grip on the skin is required. The treatment techniques can be performed standing, lying or sitting, making this an accessible treatment for most people.
The areas of treatment are often not where you feel discomfort. A session usually lasts between 1 – 3 hours, due to the slow and patient nature of the work. With chronic problems, the whole body often needs to be treated over a number of frequent sessions to ensure optimal results and break habitual patterns. Your therapist will help you to maintain the changes gained in each session by giving education on good movement and posture, including home care exercises to improve strength and flexibility over time.
Your feedback is always actively encouraged during each session to gauge responses to the treatment. Emotional or physical releases can produce unfamiliar effects in some clients. These type of releases occur when the fascia lets go and releases stored memories. These are normal responses, however the therapist will talk you through what to expect. You may experience changes in skin colour or breathing rate, trembling, sweating, crying, laughing, or strange movement responses in the body (known as ‘myofascial unwinding). After a session, some people do feel temporarily tired or stiff, but most people report positive effects such as relaxation and good mood.
So if you have a nagging injury or undiagnosed pains, it may be worth considering seeing a massage therapist training in MFR, or a certified MFR practitioner to help get to the bottom of your pain and get you on the path to recovery.
‘The body is the personality and the personality is the body, there is no divide. We are each a unique individual being with our own history of events and memory that shape and mould us causing us to react and enact to our own fascial blueprint’ (Duncan, 2011)
How else can I keep my fascia healthy?
We know that improvements can be made in the fascial system with a little work, and there are also ways to keep your own fascia healthy:
Lack of movement is a key factor that may lead to a build-up of adhesions between the fascial layers and tension overtime. Stretch and move as often as you can throughout the day, using gentle movement exercises at your desk to keep the fascial layers moving. If your muscles get tight with exercise, the surrounding fascia will also tighten, causing pain. Gentle, regular, slow stretching can really minimise the occurrence of injuries.
Fascia is made of water like all the cells in the body. Therefore drinking enough water i.e. 6 – 8 glasses daily, can help your fascial health and fluidity.
Take time to relax!
Warm baths, relaxation, yoga can all help to relax, and when we relax our muscles and fascia relax. After a stressful day at work, a warm bath or meditation session can help to loosed all the tissues in the body.
Barnes J. (November 2016) https://www.myofascialrelease.com
Duncan R. (2014) Myofascial Release. Human Kinetics: UK
Duncan R. (2011) ‘Myofascial Release – Its More Than Just a Muscle!’ Embody Magazine
Hedley G. (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdRqLrCF_Ys
Wikipedia (November 2016) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascia
From the Editor:
To date, none of the team here at Bristol Massage Therapy are certified Myofascial Release practitioners. However, Rosie, Ollie & most recently Ellie have all completed Level 1 of the training. They are all insured to offer stand alone treatments or work as part of a massage appointment. If you would like more information or to discuss this, please email Victoria directly.