What is Fascia & Myofascial Release?
Updated: Feb 6
Fascia and myofascial release are becoming common terms. But are they worth paying attention to? Let us take a deeper look at what fascia is and how fascia can affect your body. We will also delve into the field of manual therapy called myofascial release. We will look at the goals of myofascial release and how they differ from other therapies.
What is Fascia:
Fascia is one type of connective tissue in your body. Fascia is not unique to human beings. All animals possess fascia. Fascia organizes cells, tissues, and in turn an entire body. Fascia runs from head-to-toe weaving every muscle, bone and organ together. Your fascia is the organ of structure. Its framework is both protective and supportive. Their is no beginning or end to your fascia system, which is arranged in layers throughout the body.
In a healthy body the fascia can glide and deform with ease. This allows for easy flexible movement without restriction. Fascia also creates stability by reenforcing joints and load bearing chains within the body. One type of fascia surrounds nerves and blood vessels allowing them to slide through tunnels and across joints.
Our fascia is constantly growing and adapting to our physical needs. Another type of fascia is involved with wound healing. A scaffold of fascia is deposited by special cells called fibroblasts over the site of injury. Immune cells and others use this scaffold as substrate for healing. Fascia is composed of fibers, cells, and fluid matrix or ground substance. Depending on the proportions of each, fascia takes on differing qualities ranging from dense to loose and can be highly structured or irregular. Dense ordered fascia is found in the strong linear bands of tendons and ligaments. Loose irregular fascia can be located underneath the skin and as padding around organs.
Over time fascia can become too thick and too dense to allow proper movement. This is especially common following an injury, think scar tissue, but can also occur due to body mechanics and stress. Inflammation and disease negatively impact the fascia as can smoking and poor diet. Joints may become tight not because a muscle is tight but because the fascia surrounding the muscles does not allow enough space. Because fascia is everywhere its effects are often far reaching.
Fascia is Plastic:
Fascia’s greatest strength lies in its adaptability. Although the exact mechanism is debated, it is recognized that fascia changes when appropriately contacted. This may feel like melting, stretching and gliding. Tissues under contact soften and find length. Areas of dense tissue differentiate into separate bundles which can then be further divided. Using finger tips, knuckles or an elbow, the therapist aims to separate layers of fascia. A treatment may involve active or passive participation of the client.
Fascia that was stiff, bound, or painful regains movement and hydration. Joint decompression relieves misalignments and permits more efficient transfer of force along the bone axis. Nerves, blood vessels and arteries regain an ability to elongate as the joint rotates.
What is Myofascial Release?
Myofascia is a particular type of fascia that surrounds muscles. Its thin and strong fibers may have a tensile strength of more than 2000 pounds. Fibers surround individual muscle cells bundling them into functional units. Injury, inflammation, and disease may cause myofascia to contract and loose hydration. The end result is reduced mobility, pain, or structural misalignment. Contracted myofascia is called a restriction. You may feel them as knots or tight bands of tissue. But remember, this same tissue extends deep into the joints.
Myofascial release is a manual therapy targeted at tight restricted myofascia. The therapist generally uses deep sustained pressure with the goal of mobilizing the bound layer. Myofascial release can be a little uncomfortable at first but often leads to a deep sense of relaxation. This is due to changes at the level of your nervous system. Much myofascial work is done close to bones and joints. In these areas the fascia is particularly susceptible to hardening and they can be the more difficult to access through traditional approaches.
There are many products on the market sold to help you perform self myofascial release. These vary from hard and soft foam rollers to balls and the like. Many of them can do a lot of good when used correctly. However, I believe there is no substitute for the precision achieved by a skilled myofascial therapist.
There are many schools and approaches to myofascial release. Many are based on the pioneering work of Dr. Ida Rolf. When considering which therapist it is best for you, ask if they have experience with your particular condition. An ability to achieve your treatment goals should be your primary criteria. Often treatment will take multiple sessions, so it is wise to plan ahead.
How is Myofascial Release Different?
The effectiveness of myofascial release comes from your bodies own natural intelligence. In myofascial release we are not creating anything new. Instead we return your body to its naturally balanced state. Do you remember what it felt like to move as a child? Your body was built around this ease. But we take some knocks along the way and those stresses are maintained by the myofascia. In myofascial release the objective is to free bound tissue, effectively taking years off your body. The techniques are safe and very effective.
If your body is in a state of tension, conscious or otherwise, you experience a diminished quality of life. When you get into your car and drive, soon your forget all about the vehicle. The wheels become an extension of your hands, the radio an extension of your finger tip. But now the ride is no longer smooth and the reception is off. What you need is a proper mechanic to work on your vehicle. Only then will the driving experience match your expectations.
Immediately following myofascial release you may notice changes in how you feel and move. For example, it is common to have an increased range of motion. Over the next few days your body will be adapting to this change. Movement draws in fresh blood and removes a build up of metabolic waste. It is not uncommon to feel a little muscle soreness, but this is temporary.
Ida Rolf compared this work to making a bed. She said, “Rolfing can be like making your bed in the morning. You think you’re going to get by without pulling that bed apart, so you pull up this cover and the next cover. When you get all the covers puffed up, you’ve got nine ridges running across the bed. Now you’ve got to go to a deeper layer and organize the deeper layer, and make your bed on top of that. Then you’ve got a made bed. Well it’s the same with the body: you’ve got to organize those deeper layers.”
Myofascial release is one way of organizing the deeper layers of the body so that superficial surface layers regain their natural position and organization. To make the example more concrete consider the shoulder joint. Strong deep muscles of the rotator cuff create stability. Superficial muscles generate movement, strength and power. Proper functioning requires both layers to be unrestricted.
Benefits of Myofascial Release:
Myofascial release is beneficial in treating, managing and eliminating many common physical conditions. How can you tell if myofascial release is right for you? Ask yourself these questions: Does my body feel tight? Can I no longer move as well as before? It may be hard to find somebody who does not answer 'yes' to these questions. But this only points to the need for this beneficial work. Myofascial release is particularly useful where there has been an injury. At Rolfing Chattanooga, I commonly help clients recovering from car accidents and surgical procedures such as hip replacements. Many clients are also under care of a physical therapist or personal trainer. Myofascial work can also help to prevent injury and further physical decline.
Some Conditions Benefited by Myofascial Release:
Neck & Back pain
TMJ and Jaw pain
Tunnel syndromes such as carpal tunnel
Nerve pain and problems affecting the extremities
Tennis & Golf Elbow
This list is just the starting point. In over five years of practice I have really seen it all!
Is Myofascial Release Scientifically Supported?
The good news is that myofascial release is scientifically and medically supported, but there is a lot more research left to do. Many studies are limited in size or complexity of design. It is also often difficult to determine how a result is achieved. In many regards the medical community is only beginning to understand the far reaching effects of myofascial therapy. Recent reviews point broadly at positive outcomes (McKenny et al, 2013). Myofascial instructor and Rolfer Til Luchau points out that, “Even if there is still disagreement about the exact mechanism involved, there is ample empirical and research-based evidence that manual therapy can increase fascial flexibility and adaptability, and that client benefits include increased mobility and less pain” (Luchau. Advanced Myofascial Techniques. p. 19. Handspring Publishing 2015).
Organizations such as the Fascial Research Congress (fasciacongress.org) aim to foster understanding and collaboration among scientists working in fascia research and clinical professionals whose work addresses fascia. Their work supports modern research and dissemination of the latest clinical findings.
McKenney, Kristin, et al. “Myofascial Release as a Treatment for Orthopaedic Conditions: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Athletic Training, National Athletic Trainers Association, 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3718355/