What exactly is myofascial release? And how is it different from other massage therapies?

fascia_up_close (1)At the Wells Clinic, I am often asked about myofascial release, what it is, where it fits in with other types of massage therapy, and how it helps us stay in good shape.

Let me start by explaining what the fascial system is and the role it plays. Myo means muscle and fascia means band. In the context of the human body, the fascia is a web-like, three-dimensional matrix intertwining, protecting and supporting all our other physical structures.

If you’re a meat eater, you’ll recognise fascia as that stringy material that holds together the Sunday joint: the white substance that weaves around and between the muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, organs, skin and bone. As with other mammals, fascia runs from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes, and without fascia our bodies would have no form or function.

So clearly it has a key role to play in maintaining optimal health, but only recently has this been properly understood by mainstream medicine which historically saw fascia merely as a dispensable packing material. Now research is increasingly suggesting that it’s actually a vital missing piece in the healthcare jigsaw.

The significance of fascia has however been recognised for much longer by complementary practitioners and we can trace back the origins of what we now know as myofascial release (MFR) to many established therapies including osteopathy, craniosacral therapy, energy work, and soft tissue mobilisation.

With myofascial release we are treating the two most superficial layers of fascia and their associated structures, all of which form part of the global fascial matrix and are in constant communication with each other. It’s both a therapy and a rehabilitation tool, designed to work with the body —naturally, without force, in balance, and in symmetry.


How does myofascial release work?

Fascia is designed to adapt to all the changes in tension that take place throughout the body — something that happens all the time and without our conscious awareness. The only time we do become aware of it is when we’re injured or under psychological stress and the system reacts by creating tightness, restrictions and adhesions. These generate a myriad of symptoms, often experienced nowhere near the original injury point, that over time lead the body to lose its capacity to adapt physiologically. These in turn cause restrictions that spread rather like a pull in a sweater, leading to further loses in flexibility and more movement limitations.

This is when MFR has such a valuable role to play — on its own, or as part of a wider regime involving other modalities such as therapeutic hot stone massage and trigger point therapy.

When you come to the Wells Clinic, you’ll find I ask you questions before and during MFR treatment. This is because myofascial release is a whole-body, client-led therapy your feedback increases both my awareness and yours of your body and its complex — and sometimes surprising — cause and effect processes. This ‘therapeutic dialoguing’ is one aspect of MFR, while the hands-on part creates another in an interlinked triangle also comprising myofascial rebounding and myofascial unwinding.

I perform MFR without oils or lotions so there’s no slippage on the skin this enables an accurate and detailed evaluation. The actual MFR technique involves using slow, sustained pressure at the barrier of tissue resistance, and all experienced MFR therapists become highly sensitive to the ebb and flow of the entire matrix.

We don’t work on muscle length; we work on the twists and turns of the fascial network which often creates something of a straitjacket from which we need to free the body. Another analogy is to compare the fascia tissue to a sponge: the MFR therapist slowly squeezes out the stale water and then encourages fresh, clean water to re-energise the entire body.

I see MFR as much more than the sum of its parts — it’s a complete therapeutic approach and it’s long overdue the widespread recognition it deserves.

Acknowledgments:

With thanks for John F. Barnes, the global authority on MFR who has taught the technique to more than 100,000 therapists worldwide, and to Ruth Duncan and her team for their MFR training and expertise in the UK and Ireland.

For more detail in layman’s language, I recommend A Patient’s Guide to Understanding Myofascial Release: Simple Answers to Frequently Asked Questions by Cathy Covell (BalboaPress, 2014).