Myofascial Release Therapy

by Karen Lee Richards Patient Advocate

Myofascial Release Therapy is a treatment option that many people are not aware of. It is a hands-on type of therapy that is particularly effective for fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, and can be quite helpful for many other types of chronic pain as well.

What It Is

To understand what Myofascial Release Therapy is, it's important to know what fascia is. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds, supports and stabilizes every muscle, bone, organ, nerve, blood vessel and cell in the body. It forms a continuous web from head to toe. Think of a piece of raw chicken. Between the skin and the meat you'll find a layer of thin white tissue - that is the fascia.

The fascia is normally fluid and moves easily, but when there is an injury, the fascia constricts to protect the injured area. Usually when the injury heals, the fascia relaxes and goes back to its normal state. However, sometimes it can get bound up and create a three-dimensional pull or drag throughout the whole body. Therefore, a fascial strain in one area of the body can cause pain in multiple other areas. This often happens with a chronic pain disorder like fibromyalgia. Although the original restriction may have begun in one part of the body, the pull from that one restriction can cause connected tissues to become constricted, eventually spreading throughout the body.

How It Works

Myofascial Release Therapy applies very gentle sustained pressure to various parts of the body in order to release the fascia so it can once again move fluidly. A Myofascial Release Therapy session will often begin with what is called tractioning. The therapist may lift your legs slightly by your heels, holding them with a sustained gentle pull for several minutes. This is generally felt into the low back, and when held long enough, will cause the fascia to begin to release all the way into the shoulders and neck. A similar type of traction may then be applied to your neck and shoulders as well. Because fascia is three-dimensional, the effects of Myofascial Release Therapy techniques will usually be felt wherever the fascia is most constricted.

Following the tractioning, the therapist will begin gently moving the skin back and forth on various parts of the body (i.e., back, shoulders, hips) to identify the fascial restrictions. When a restriction is located, a cross-hand technique of gentle manipulation is applied to release it. Since fascia is layered and must be released in layers, this cross-hand release technique is used to release restrictions in progressive layers.

When the fascia has been restricted for a long time, as is usually the case with fibromyalgia patients, it may take several weekly therapy sessions before the fascia holds the release long term.

My Experience

I first learned about Myofascial Release Therapy ten years ago when a lady I worked with told me about her massage therapist who had been helping some fibromyalgia patients. When she told him about me, he offered to give me a free treatment if I'd like to try it. I was extremely skeptical. My body was so sensitive that my clothes hurt. The idea of someone massaging me did not sound pleasant. But since it was free, I figured it couldn't hurt to at least give him a call. When we talked, I was so impressed with his knowledge of fibromyalgia that I decided to give his treatment a shot.

Much to my surprise, not only was the therapy tolerable, it actually felt good! When he finished the first session, I felt more relaxed than I had in years. I couldn't wait until the next treatment. Even if it didn't help my fibromyalgia, I thought the relaxation I felt was worth it. But thankfully, it did help my fibromyalgia - a lot. When I began Myofascial Release Therapy, I had been using a cane for over a year and getting steadily worse. I was afraid it might not be long before I would be in a wheelchair. After two months of weekly Myofascial Release Therapy sessions, I put the cane away and haven't used it since.

Who Does It?

Myofascial Release Therapy may be offered by massage therapists, physical therapists, physiatrists, osteopaths, or chiropractors. However, when it comes to body-wide fascial restriction such as those experienced by fibromyalgia patients, I tend to lean toward massage therapists because they are usually the only ones who are willing and able to spend the extended time needed (usually an hour per session) to treat the whole body. Make sure the therapist you choose has special certification in Myofascial Release Therapy.

It's also important to know that there is another technique that is sometimes also referred to as Myofascial Release Therapy. It is a deep tissue therapy, called rolfing, which can be very painful. Be sure when you ask about Myofascial Release Therapy that you specify you want the very gentle method.

Source: Personal interview with Myofascial Release Therapist, Richard Morgan, LAC, LMT, CNT. 3/17/09.

© Karen Lee Richards 2009

Last Updated 04/13/09

Karen Lee Richards
Meet Our Writer
Karen Lee Richards

Karen is the co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She writes for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.