What is Myofascial Release Therapy?

by Jan 7, 2021

What is myofascial release therapy?  If you’ve heard of it before, you may know that it’s often used in sports massage and has similarities to deep tissue massage.

However, if you do your reading on myofascial release, you may notice the words gentle pressure come up quite a bit when the technique is described.  How is that?  How can a modality so comparable to deep tissue involve gentle pressure?  And why would light touch be so often added to an intense sports massage?

I’ll tell you the answers, but first, let’s talk about fascia and why it needs to be released in the first place.

What is Fascia?

This is one of the most common questions I hear in the massage room.  “What is fascia?”  Fascia, pronounced FASH-a or FOSH-a depending on who you’re talking to, is a sheet of connective tissue located beneath your skin.  This soft tissue is really important, considering it binds all your internal stuff together!  Primarily made of collagen, fascia wraps around and connects your muscles, bones, nerves, internal organs, and blood vessels.  If you didn’t have that tissue band enclosing your inner workings, your body would have no stability whatsoever and you’d be a blob on the floor.  You’d be like a marionette without strings.

What is Myofascial Release Therapy?

Wait, this type of therapy is called myofascial release therapy!  Not fascial release therapy!  So why did I just talk about a thing called fascia, as opposed to myofascia?

Here’s a medical terminology lesson!  If a word starts with the prefix myo-, it pertains to something muscular.  Myofibrils, myoglobin, myoblasts… they all involve muscle!  So myofascial release involves treating the fascial layer atop your muscle, with the goal of also treating the muscle beneath the fascia.

With that out of the way, here’s a basic definition.  Myofascial release therapy: a modality that involves the application of sustained pressure into the blockages in myofascial tissue.  The technique is used to reduce pain and improve restricted mobility, both of which can be caused by tense fascia and knotted muscles.

How Does Myofascial Release Work?

This is how myofascial release is similar to deep tissue massage.  With deep tissue, your muscles are treated in a specific order.  Your therapist will start with the treatment of your superficial muscles.  Once the superficial muscles are addressed, the muscles beneath those will be treated.  And after that, the even deeper muscles are treated.

Myofascial release also works from superficial to deep.  The top layer of fascia is treated before anything else.  This is because an adhesed fascial layer has a direct impact on the muscular layer it encases.  When fascia goes under stress, a chemical change takes place and the band becomes viscous.  The viscosity causes the nerves, which the fascia is supposed to protect, to press down into the neighboring muscle.  This then leads to irritable spots called trigger points, which cause restrictions in tissue movement and muscular contraction.  This explains why myofascial release is often performed at the start of a sports massage.  Those athletes want their muscles to reach full range of motion before they get back on the field!

So how does this myofascial release thing work?  Well, unlike most modalities of massage, your therapist won’t use lotions or oils.  Instead, your therapist will begin the session with a gentle non-slippery touch.  This is done so the fascia can be easily detected.  It won’t be found if it can’t hook itself onto your therapists fingers!  Or fist, or base of palm, or thumb… we all have our own way of doing it.  Have you ever sunk your hands into a mixture of cornstarch and water?  That’s what fascia feels like when it hooks onto your therapist’s touch!  Once that fascia sticks itself to the pressure, your therapist will glide on slowly through the adhesed top layer.  We can literally feel the tough spots releasing.

Although light touch is applied, myofascial release can come with some discomfort.  Remember when I talked about those nasty trigger points?  Those fiery little points can send a shooting pain through your body, and they’re likely to be encountered during myofascial release.  So don’t mistake this technique for some wussy modality just because it involves gentle touch.  It can be intense!

Things to Consider

If you want to try myofascial release at your next session, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Tell your therapist you want myofascial release before session starts.
    • This is important!  Don’t wait until you already have lotion or oil (especially not oil!) on your back.  The moisture will have to diminish completely before the technique can be performed, and the odds of it drying up completely are low.
  • Myofascial release doesn’t have to take up your entire session.
    • If you wish, you can start the massage with myofascial release and then move onto other modalities.  Always remember: it’s your massage!  Make sure your therapist knows what you want.
  • Speak up if it’s too intense.
    • Trigger points are rough, and plenty of us hate having them touched.  But it’s one thing to not like trigger point therapy, and another to subject yourself to it and not reap its benefits.  If you find yourself tensing up during myofascial release, your muscles won’t be able to relax.  Communicate with your therapist about this.  Together you can either tweak the myofascial release technique to make it less painful, or you can just switch to a different modality.
Katrina Jenkins

Katrina Jenkins

Author, Licensed Massage Therapist

Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.

Photo Credit:

Canva by microgen from Getty Images Signature

Resources:

“Adhesions and Fascia.” Self Care for RSI, www.selfcare4rsi.com/adhesions.html.

Wauters, Sean, et al. “Trigger Points.” Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com/Trigger_Points.

“What Is Myofascial Release?” Myofascial Release Treatment Centers & Seminars, www.myofascialrelease.com/about/definition.aspx.

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