There has been a lot of buzz lately in the bodywork / massage industry about fascia and releasing fascia. There is also a lot of confusion in the public about what this is and how it differs from conventional or traditional massage. I would like to attempt to clear this up so that you can make informed decisions about your healthcare and that of your horse.
First let's define our terms. Massage is the most commonly known term and to the public it can mean a variety of hands on therapies. All massage however, is not created equal and it is incumbent upon the consumer to be aware of various risks and rewards associated with each type of massage. The average person often considers massage as a luxury or a 'treat'. Others consider it a form of self care and a way to relieve stress and tension. Still others understand massage as a therapeutic manual therapy that reduces pain, and promotes several specific bio-mechanical improvements in the body.
All of these interpretations are valid and these outcomes are certainly worthwhile. As a massage therapist, I am not criticizing any modality. The variety of options expands the marketplace and provides meaningful choices to consumers based on their needs, preferences and objectives. All of this is a good thing for the industry and the consumer. In massage generally the therapist is focused on using specific techniques to manipulate the muscles to achieve these therapeutic outcomes. This is the distinction I wish to make because the rest of this article is about another important structure in the body.
Fascia is the most pervasive organ in the body. It is a three dimensional web that runs from just under the surface of the skin all the way to the surface of the bones. It runs through and around every muscle, organ and joint and it forms transverse slings inside the body that support neighboring structures. It is made up of collagen, elastin and ground substance. Fascia is not muscle, but it exists within muscle and around muscle and it has a direct influence and effect on muscle function.
Fascial release or myofascial release is a manual (hands on) therapy done by a licensed massage therapist or another licensed health care professional. It is different from traditional massage for several reasons:
1. The therapist is intending to assist the body in releasing a fascial restriction that is creating pain or dysfunction in the client's body.
2. The therapist's primary point of interaction with the body is with the fascia and not the muscles.
3. The session has specific therapeutic outcomes that are agreed to between the therapist and the client. These outcomes may range from attempting to reduce or eliminate pain, increasing range of motion in a limb, or improving function and / or strength in a specific area of the body.
Because fascia is pervasive throughout the body, and attaches to bones and joints, it is a part of the body's structure and effects this structure. Fascial release therapy is sometimes called structural integration. Releasing restrictions in the fascia allows the structure to return to its correct position, thereby improving function and reducing pain. If you think of the body as a series of pulleys and levers, where the fascia is part of the pulley system and the bones are the levers, this may be a helpful way to envision the system and this work.
Fascial release is a fascinating modality. Because fascia is a three dimensional web and runs throughout the body, we sometimes see cases where the restriction and the dysfunction are not co-located but are at distant ends of the body. This means good therapy is often non-linear. When we release a fascial restriction where we find it, we are improving that immediate area, and also possibly remote areas that are also sub-optimized.
I often find that headaches and neck aches are improved when working in the pelvic diaphragm. This may seem counter-intuitive until you realize that the fascia is connective tissue and it attaches to the length of the spine and the meninges, a tough sheath of connective tissue (or fascia) that encapsulates the spinal cord and the brain. When considered from this perspective of interconnections, it should not be surprising that a restriction in one part of the body may affect another.
One of the greatest advantages to fascial release is that is can impact a large area within the body, so it can provide more far reaching benefits and even impact more than one system of the body. For example if a person or a horse has a restriction in the upper and mid thorax they may be experiencing a wide range of symptoms ranging from pain, stiffness and lack of mobility and even shortness of breath. The fascia in this part of the body connects to respiratory diaphragm, rib cage, thoracic muscles, as well as the nerves, blood vessels and lymph glands in this part of the body. Releasing a local restriction in this area of the body may not only result in reduced pain and increased range of motion, but may also improve breathing and posture!
Athletes have long used massage therapy for preparing muscles for strenuous activity, increasing range of motion, improving athletic potential, reducing painful muscle spasms, and accelerating muscle recovery. Fascial release takes these results to the next level.
Fascial restrictions can cause pain and can also reduce function and performance. Releasing these restrictions can improve functions like stride length, which in turn can increase speed of movement. Fascial release is quickly becoming a competitive advantage for athletes who are not only looking to reduce pain and dysfunction but are also looking to gain incremental improvements that translate into better competitive performance.
As a practitioner I prefer to work in the fascia because that is often the source of pain and dysfunction. When working in fascia I am also influencing the muscles and other systems of the body. Using gentle pressure or traction, I am able to assist the tissues in releasing to a more optimal condition and this helps reduce pain and increase function. The body seeks out its most efficient or effective position and it tends to hold that position without the soft tissue rebounding back to the original spastic state.
If you would like to know more about fascial release and how it can benefit your health and that of your horse, please contact me.
Lisa Machala LMT is the owner and operator of Michigan Equine Therapy. She specializes in fascial release and CranioSacral Therapy to help her clients and their horses feel and perform at their best. Lisa is the creator of Painless Riding in 8 Weeks. Please visit www.MichiganEquineTherapy.com to learn more about her programs and services.