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Understanding Fascia and Myofascial Release

Myofascial release is the most effective bodywork therapy I have tried. Yet I’ve never been able to describe it very well. In this guest post, my massage therapist Jenny Eggers explains what fascia is and how myofascial release works.

Demystifying Myofascial Release
By Jenny Eggers, Licensed Massage Practitioner

Perhaps you have heard of myofascial release and you’re caught wondering what is this and what exactly fascia is?

Well I am sure every one of you has taken the step forward onto the step you thought was there and bam! Shock waves transpire up into your leg, your hips, all the way up into your neck. Those waves travel along what some structural integrationists call your fascial net. This fascial net serves as a protective barrier from the outside world against pathogens and transmits immediate feedback to your brain about your surroundings.

Fascia keeps us together in recognizable form. It is a tough, elastic connective tissue made from collagen, elastin and reticulin. It is a gelatinous like substance that provides tension and compression around tissue that would otherwise sag to the floor like a pair of socks that have lost their elasticity. Imagine a grapefruit and the septum the pith forms around and between the meat of the fruit. Just below the skin we have a layer of fascia encasing our body and as we move into deeper structures it weaves in and out of organic tissue encasing individual muscle fibers and organs down to the cellular level.

Other forms of fascia are bones, blood and ligaments to name a few. Bones are designed to reflect and change to accommodate the individual characteristics of each person. The needs of an ultra-marathoner are different in comparison to the needs of a swimmer or an office-worker.

Your body measures the forces applied to the bone and responds accordingly by building or tearing down bone mass. As you apply more forces to your bone your body responds by building up more bone mass. This can be to your disadvantage if there is some sort of imbalance as we see in the cases of bone spurs. On the other hand, if you do not apply force to your bones your body responds by tearing it down.

Fascia, providing us with structure and ease with mobility also causes dis-ease with mobility after years of misuse and/or injury. After trauma or injury it can shrink and harden around and within your body limiting your range of motion or causing pain because your support structure has been altered. What about that pain you have in your shoulder? Possibly caused from the numerous times you sprained your ankle playing kick-ball many years ago.

Once injured your body responds with compensatory patterns. To allow healing, other muscles take over the job of the injured muscles. These patterns are beneficial at the time but if not addressed they become entrapments and your fascia responds accordingly. The fascia is shortened or elongated where once it was in a neutral position and after years of compensation you now have chronic pain with seemingly no cause or relief.

This is where myofascial release comes in to play.
Myofascial release involves very little lubrication and specific force. Applying a sustained dynamic force the practitioner will catch the fascia beneath their fingers and either with your help or without will slowly stretch the fascia in various directions. This is where the burn that some of you might be familiar with in a bodywork session comes in. Slowly stretching the fascia will alter the collagen and soften the viscosity causing greater ease in movement and less pain in your daily existence.

How do you know if myofascial release is right for you?
Ask yourself these questions: Do I have chronic pain? Have I tried numerous remedies to no lasting avail? Do I feel stiff and clumsy? Do I perform the same actions day in and day out? Do I exercise regularly and want greater muscle health? Have I been in a lot of accidents or had my fair share of injury? If you answered yes then perhaps this technique is right for you.

One thing to keep in mind about fascia. . . .
With any deep bodywork there is a potential to release some emotions or memories stored in the tissue. Above I wrote that fascia forms a protective barrier against pathogens. The body doesn’t necessarily have a discriminating eye for what is a cellular pathogen and what is an emotional pathogen.

If one has a lot of emotional stress surrounding them the body will respond in kind. Slumping of the shoulders at one time may have been a protective measure. Maybe another time it is from a car seat that is ill fit. Continuous slumping of the shoulders can become a chronic fascial issue that brings a lot of discomfort. Getting your shoulders released may also release the memory of that emotional pathogen from so long ago.

After a session of myofascial work it is important to honor the emotions you are experiencing. Napping, journaling, counseling, exercising are all very healthy ways to explore and integrate the movement that just occurred in your fascial net.

Jenny specializes in therapeutic massage, injury treatment, deep tissue massage and, of course, myofascial release. If you’re looking for an excellent massage therapist in Seattle, contact her at patcheggers[at]yahoo[dot]com. She’s a delightful person with a true talent for bodywork. I can’t recommend her highly enough.

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Kerrie’s 2007: A Year to Forget

There was a theme consistently underlying my 2007 posts: My migraines were BAD. The year started with five months of being woken up by a migraine nearly every night and ended with more than two months of horrendous all-the-time migraines. I felt more beaten down than I have in the last three years.

Before you get discouraged by the following review, know that I am more optimistic about treating my migraines than I have been since I got my occipital nerve stimulator in December 2003. (Read more on that following the treatment review.)

Acupuncture
I revisited acupuncture, but my superhero acupuncturist told me that more sessions would be a waste of time and money.

Naturopathy/Homeopathy
Shedding tears in the naturopath’s office the first time was enough to keep me from seeing her again. Against my hard fast rule that I not take anything I can’t identify (which I also broke with the acupuncturist), I took the homeopathic remedy, vitamin D and magnesium supplements she suggested. They did nothing.

Chiropractic
I gave the chiropractor two months, which she said was the maximum time to see results. I went five times one week, four the next, three for a couple weeks and so on. Turns out I hold my adjustments very well. Unfortunately my migraines didn’t changed and having my neck adjusted freaked me out. Once she stopped asking about my headaches, I knew she had given up.

Sleep Specialist
Many people with treatment-resistant headache disorders become much more treatable once they have sleep problems resolved. Although my sleep seemed fine, I saw a sleep specialist with a background in neurology. Sadly, my sleep is practically perfect. I sleep eight hours, wake up rested, nap when I need to without having it interfere with that night’s sleep.

New Headache Specialist
I saw a new Seattle-based headache specialist in May. We hit it off immediately. Too bad we focused on my blog, headache patients in general and clinical trials. I left enrolled in a clinical trial for Lyrica (which I quit) and with a potential advertiser for The Daily Headache, but without having discussed any of my questions or other treatment options.

Food Trigger Diets
Food triggers were my obsession, even though I’ve always thought them to hog the spotlight in headache treatment (only about 25% of people actually have food triggers).

Although wheat and dairy aren’t considered headache triggers in the general sense, they were my target for months. My no-dairy foray lasted six weeks — until I discovered that I’d dropped 12 pounds in that time. Testing wheat lasted three months, yet I had no ill-effects when I reintroduced it.

After a couple years of avoiding them, I’m almost positive that beans, nuts and legumes are triggers for me. But berries, squash, sunflower and soy oil, barley, pineapple, onions. . . are all questionable.

I declared that I was going on a drastic food trigger elimination diet. A couple weeks later came this post: Drastic Elimination Diet for Migraine Triggers: What Was I Thinking? You get the point.

Myofascial Release
Finally some good news. In August I started myofascial release and noticed results quickly. The changes aren’t dramatic, but each treatment usually gives me some relief. The effects have never lasted more than two days — and sometimes only a couple hours — but I’m not complaining.

Craniosacral Therapy
Two sessions weren’t enough to judge if craniosacral will be effective. I’ll definitely try again, but it just didn’t work out this time. The woman I saw was wonderful and spent an extra 30 minutes with me each visit. Unfortunately, driving to her practice takes 30 minutes. After spending 20 minutes lost on the way there and another hour on the way home, the negative associations were too strong for me to go back.

What Now?
When the last migraine spell lifted in mid-December I remembered how good I could feel. Thinking about what I love about my life was no longer a reminder of what I couldn’t have, but of how wonderful it truly is. I am happy and getting out of the house more. I even get to see friends!

This year’s list of treatments to try is as long as it was last year. Its like I’ve spent the last 10 years whittling down possibilities and arrived at the most promising therapies. Having had this faith shattered in the past, I am cautious. Nonetheless, I’m positive a brighter path is ahead.

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Less Neck & Shoulder Pain Equals a Happier Head: The Joys of Massage, Menthol Muscle Rub & Yoga

My neck and shoulders are finally loose enough to reduce my migraines and headaches. (Knock on wood.) After years of trying to treat them with no success, I assumed my neck and shoulders were destined to be tight.

After four months of intense, frequent massage and myofascial release, I feel like a new woman. The benefits have become so evident in the last week because I’m finally doing some regular yoga practices and am smearing my back with menthol muscle rub nightly.

No dibs and dabs for me — this is a heavy-duty layer of sticky, smelly menthol balm. I fight the chills for the first 30 minutes I’m in bed and the smell is migrating from our bedroom to the hall. No matter, I really do feel better.

I had some success with Woodlock Oil a year ago, but backed off when I learned that artificial menthol is made with turpentine. Since then I’ve searched in vain for a product with naturally occurring menthol — not that there’s any way to really tell. Clearly, I’ve given in. (I just realized that I could contact companies directly. I may not learn much, but it will be more than I know now.)

I try to do some chest, neck and shoulder focused yoga stretches each morning and before I go to bed. The stretches are so helpful that fitting them in my day is no longer a chore. The best part? The effects are immediate.

Now I’m looking for a good muscle balm. What do you recommend? I’ve tried:

  • Biofreeze: My favorite so far
  • Sombra: My massage therapist used this yesterday; not greasy or too stinky.
  • Jason Mineral Gel: Doesn’t smell to bad, but smeared like crazy
  • Safeway Generic: Smeared on the side of my face and irritated my eyes all night

Cinnamon muscle balm is a great option if you don’t want to smell like menthol. Just know that I may scream and run the other way if I smell you.

I only have a week of relief under my belt. Who knows if it will continue. Even if my migraines eventually thwart the benefits, my muscles no longer being bound up is at least a blessing to my back.

Many thanks to Linz who recommended myofascial release, my lovely yoga teacher Kelly, and the fabulous acupuncturist and massage therapist I’ve seen. If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in seeing any of my healthcare providers, send me an e-mail for contact information.

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What’s Up With Me

I’m still alive! Yesterday was the best day I’ve had in weeks; the weekend was worse in months. I’m all over the place in my symptoms (although nausea is consistently a major problem), emotions and thoughts. Whether I’m depressed has been weighing on me, but I’m almost positive I’m not. I think I am just worn out and discouraged.

On the treatment front, I’m still have myofascial release massages once a week and have also been doing lymphatic drainage treatments. Myofascial release has been a godsend, particularly in relieving active migraines. Lymphatic drainage was a bust. I feel awful after every weekly treatment and am not seeing any longterm improvement. I may try once more, but even the massage therapist doing the work is doubtful.

My internist reminded me that I was supposed to have my thyroid checked almost 18 months ago, to follow up on a lump she found. I’m looking forward to my appointment with the endocrinologist on Tuesday. It seems like any food can trigger a migraine for me — even rice! This is absurd, of course, and I’m thinking that blood sugar may be involved. I have no idea if it’s the case, but maybe, just maybe, an answer will be lurking there.

We’re off to Phoenix for Thanksgiving. I’m worried about my health when I’m there, especially the nausea. Fortunately, everyone we’ll be with encourages me to relax and rest when I need to. I am truly thankful for them.

Have a wonderful, low-headache/migraine holiday!

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Myofascial Release: A Massage Technique for Tissue Relaxation

Myofascial release is one of the new therapies I’m trying now. The three sessions I’ve had have been mentally and physically relaxing. A severe migraine dropped to a mild headache after Saturday’s session. The relief only lasted an hour, but what a wonderful hour it was. I went into today’s session with a severe migraine and left with a mild one. Nearly three hours later, the pain is hovering between mild and moderate.

Never heard of myofascial release? Neither had I until a reader mentioned it to me. It’s a massage technique that uses friction and sustained pressure to release fascia. Fascia is a connective tissue that envelopes or binds internal body structures to support, separate and protect them.

Normal fascia is relaxed and stretches and moves easily. Injury, tight muscles, hunched shoulders and slouching contribute to tightening fascia. Effects are cumulative, so repetitive motions or bad posture stiffen fascia more and more over time. The therapy seeks to release the fascia, returning it to a relaxed state.

It may seem strange to target connective tissue to treat headaches. Is there anyone who has headaches or migraines, but completely relaxed muscles? Tight muscles indicate that fascia is tight, too. (That’s my take on it at least.)

Whether my constantly tight neck, jaw and shoulders is a result of my migraines or a trigger of them (or both), they are still sore. The therapy won’t cure my headache disorder, but it may reduce the intensity of my headaches. At the very least, it soothes the pain in my shoulders and neck.

As with nearly every alternative or complementary therapy, myofascial release is often called quackery. Whatever. It feels good and helps me unwind more than other types of massage ever have.

Physical therapist John F. Barnes, a practitioner and educator of the technique, has an in-depth explanation of myofascial therapy and fascia. (I know nothing about him as a practitioner or his clinics, but the explanation fits with what I’ve learned from my massage therapist.)