Myofascial release is a gentle, hands-on therapy that uses pressure on specific muscles and connective tissues to release tension and improve flexibility. “Myo” means muscle. “Fascia” is connective tissue that sits below the skin and stabilizes, covers, attaches and separates muscles, nerves, blood vessels and organs from one another. Myofascia, specifically, refers to the fascia that surrounds and separates muscles.
Throughout the body, fascia can be found in bands or sheets and is strong and durable. It is tightly woven, kind of like a spider’s web, and that woven design is what gives fascia its strength. Perhaps one of fascia’s most interesting features is that it is actually one continuous structure from the head to the feet. That is why a fascial restriction in one area of the body can cause symptoms somewhere else.
When the body is in a healthy form, fascia is able to move and stretch freely. However, muscle and joint problems in the body can cause restrictions in the fascia. Myofascial restrictions can cause significant pain and pressure within your body.
Sometimes, fascial restrictions happen as part of your body’s natural healing process. As an example, we often hear or read about scar tissue being formed after a surgical procedure or after an injury. Scar tissue is actually the healing of the fascia. But sometimes when the fascia heals, it is thicker and more tense in that area than it was before the surgery or injury. This thicker and tenser fascia can pull and tug on other fascial tissue, which causes pain and a change in the tissue layout. (Remember the spider web we talked about before? Imagine a lump in it—the whole web gets pulled in different directions.) There are specific myofascial release techniques that can help break down scar tissue and rework tissue in the right direction and general pattern.
There are other causes of fascial restrictions as well. Inflammation, poor posture, repetitive motion, less severe injuries and trauma (both physical and emotional) can create fascial and/or myofascial restrictions and can cause pain and restricted motion in one or multiple areas of the body.
Diagnosing Fascial/Myofascial Restrictions
Diagnosing these types of restrictions is done through physical examination. We are looking for tender points in tense muscles by applying gentle pressure to specific muscles and muscle groups. Often, we will feel the muscle “twitch” when we have found a myofascial problem in a certain area, and sometimes applying that gentle pressure causes referred pain, or pain in another area.
Currently, we do not have a way to see fascia or myofascia using any type of medical imaging (x-ray, CT-scan, MRI, etc.), so the physical examination turns out to be very important for making an accurate diagnosis of myofascial restriction or myofascial pain syndrome (a chronic pain condition).
Myofascial Release Is Not Massage Therapy
Myofascial release is different from massage therapy. The main focus of myofascial release is to align the fibers of the fascia within the fascial network. Myofascial release is often recommended along with chiropractic adjustments to focus on soft tissue problems such as trigger points (muscle knots), which can lead to tension and pressure on nerves created by the pulling and tugging on the fascia where it is not meant to be pulled or tugged. Working on these soft tissue dysfunctions often reduces pain and increases pain-free ranges of motion. Myofascial release takes time, as gentle pressure is applied over the myofascial or fascial restrictions slowly, allowing the tissue to elongate and release.
Many of us have experienced muscle pain, and usually that pain gets better within a few days to weeks. If you are dealing with muscle pain that is not improving, or if you have difficulty moving because of muscle pain, myofascial release may be a treatment option for you.