What is Myofascial Release?
By Claire Swora
Myo refers to muscles, and fascia is the connective tissue that bind muscles, bones, and organs together. We all remember the diagrams of muscles from textbooks in elementary school, but what is the function of the fascia? It connects and covers all parts of the body in a strong, fibrous sheeting, but it also plays a primary role in healing from injury. We are only just beginning to understand the role and importance of fascia in the body.
Myofascial Release, or MFR, is a massage modality that engages both the musculature and the fascia. Typically, Swedish massage (the most common massage modality in the West) works the muscles of the body, helping to relax and return the muscles to their natural lengthened state. But what if a client has chronic stress, with perpetually shortened muscle fibers of the shoulders, or has a long-standing injury that has healed with limited range of motion? In a case like this, the fascia is likely to be dense and immovable, and thus the muscles can only relax as far as the fascia will allow. Swedish massage can help the client find relaxation and bring blood flow to the impacted areas of the body, but the underlying issues (restrictive fascia) remain unaddressed. MFR is one way that a therapist can help break up the fascial fibers that limit range of motion.
In a typical MFR session, the therapist works the affected area of the body, such as the shoulders, until the therapist finds a restricted area that doesn’t yield to the touch. Using a slow, light-to-medium pressure, and no lotion, the therapist will hold and stretch the restricted area. The fascial fibers respond only to slow, gentle, and even pressure, and so the therapist must find a comfortable and effective “hold” in order to induce changes in the fascia. It takes at least three to five minutes in a hold before effective changes occur, and some therapists hold a spot for even longer, up to 20 minutes.
What does MFR feel like to the client? It is certainly different from what we expect in massage. While it can seem like a lighter treatment than Swedish or Deep Tissue, MFR can reach down to deeper structures than one might expect. Remember, the fascia connects every part of the body, so it is common for a client to experience tingling or tugging in other parts of the body than the part that the therapist is working. This feeling indicates that a restriction is being engaged in an effective way, and with persistence and patience, significant change can occur with that restriction.
As these gentle and subtle changes occur during an MFR session, sometimes a client can experience waves of emotion. This is normal and natural and indicates that emotional energy was tied to the physical restriction. Think of the fear induced in an auto accident: even years after the fact, when healing a physical part of the injury, a related emotional healing can occur. Therapists are taught to stay present and guide their client through this experience if it occurs. The massage room is a safe place to work through the physical and sometimes emotional trauma of an injury.