Myofascial Release, or MFR, is simply one of the most effective methods for relieving pain, restoring posture, and returning one to function. Myofascial Release is a hands-on technique that provides sustained pressure into myofascial restrictions (tightness, scar tissue, injured areas) to eliminate pain and restore motion. The theory of Myofascial Release (“myo” meaning muscle and “fascia” meaning connective tissue) requires an understanding of the fascial system (or connective tissue). The fascia is a specialized system of the body that has an appearance similar to a spider’s web or a sweater.
Fascia is very densely woven, covering and inter-penetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein as well as all of our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord. The most interesting aspect of the fascial system is that it is not just a system of separate coverings. It is actually one structure that exists from head to foot without interruption. In this way you can begin to see that each part of the entire body is connected to every other part by the fascia, like the yarn in a sweater.
Fascia also plays an important role in the support of our bodies, since it surrounds and has attachments to all structures. These structures would not be able to provide the stability without the constant pull of the fascial system. In fact, our bones can be thought of as tent poles, which cannot support the structure without the constant support of the guide wires (or fascia) to keep an adequate amount of tension to allow the tent (or body) to remain upright with proper equilibrium.
In the normal healthy state, the fascia is relaxed and wavy in configuration. It has the ability to stretch and move without restriction. When we experience physical trauma, scarring, or inflammation, however, the fascia loses its pliability. It becomes tight, restricted and a source of tension to the rest of the body. Trauma, such as a fall, whiplash, surgery or just habitual poor posture over time and repetitive stress injuries has a cumulative effect. The changes they cause in the fascial system influence comfort and the functioning of our body. The fascia can exert excessive pressure producing pain or restriction of motion. They affect our flexibility and stability, and are a determining factor in our ability to withstand stress and strain.
While Myofascial Release may share some commonalities with traditional massage, it is a modality that reaches deeper and creates lasting change. It shares a common goal with standard physical therapy practice, however works from a different perspective. In a traditional physical therapy setting, pain is often viewed as a result of weakness. Strengthening an already tight system often only makes the problem worse. Myofascial Release relieves the tightness and pressure from your body, allowing strength and function to return in a natural manner and returning you to your desired state.
The Wonderful World of Fascia
If you understand fascia, then you understand that a lot of what we thought we knew about the musculoskeletal system was wrong. Muscles are not isolated entities with clearly defined borders and individualized functions. Our musculoskeletal system is just that: a system of systems, linked together by a highway of connective tissue we call fascia.
Fascia penetrates and surrounds every muscle and organ in our body. It links together muscles, and groups of muscles, from the top of our skulls (epicranial fascia) to the bottom of our feet (plantar fascia).
It is made up of tightly packed collagen and elastin fibers, woven together like the fibers of a sweater, that are reside in a gel-like bath called ground substance. Ground substance has the unique ability to go from gel to liquid-form in response to pressure, heat, or stretch.
Fascia also contains specialized cells called fibroblasts, which give it the ability to produce more fascia. This usually occurs along lines of mechanical stress as a sort of reinforcement mechanism. You see this happen a lot, especially in the upper/middle back of office workers.
As a corollary to being able to reproduce itself, fascial tissue also contains smooth muscle cells and proprioceptors embedded within its cellular matrix. These give it the means to not only sense stretch and positional change, but the ability to contract or relax in response to it as well (another thing that we thought only muscle could do). Fascia contains up to nine times as many mechanoreceptors than regular muscle tissue.
The two main types of proprioceptors in fascia are Ruffini and Pacini endings. Ruffini endings decrease muscle tone and inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity in response to stretch or direct pressure. Conversely, Picini endings tense your muscles in response to pressure or vibration, providing joint stability throughout the body.
Houston, We Have a Problem
Unfortunately, the qualities that make fascia so dynamic also make it susceptible to deformation. Fascial tissue that is repeatedly exposed to excessive strain can become dense, knotted or otherwise stuck together. These areas of increased tension and are called adhesions. These adhesions can cause your muscles to lose independent movement, dragging their neighbors along with them for every movement.
Adhesions often develop around the site of previous injury and in areas of high mechanical stress like the upper back, neck, rotator cuff, glutes, and calves. They often cause decreased blood flow, are painful to the touch, and alter normal posture. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent myofascial release techniques to choose from to keep these adhesions at bay. Myofascial release is a manual therapy technique in which gentle, sustained pressure is used on the soft tissues while traction is applied to the fascia. This technique results in softening and lengthening of the fascia and breaking down of scar tissue and adhesions between skin, muscles and bones.