What is Myofascial Release?

Myofascial Release is a means of treating pain and disability that was developed by John F. Barnes, P.T.  Barnes suffered an injury that was intractable in the face of all the methods of treatment heretofore developed.  As he worked with his problem he began to understand the fascia and how it worked.  His efforts are revolutionizing therapy.  His classes have trained over 50,000 therapists worldwide.  Only therapists trained in this technique work at The Gentle Pain Release Center.  There is a large number of his classes teaching the various techniques and uses of the system.

The John F. Barnes’ Myofascial Release approach is safe, gentle,and consistently effective in producing positive and lasting results.  Myofascial Release (MFR) is a hands-on technique which involves sustained pressure into myofascial restrictions to eliminate pain and headaches and to restore motion. The release comes only after the sustained hold.  The theory of Myofascial Release requires an understanding of the fascial system – the connective tissue of our bodies.

Fascia is...

Fascia is a tough connective tissue which spreads throughout the body in a three dimensional web from the head to the feet without interruption.  Trauma or inflammation can create a binding of fascia resulting in excessive pressure on nerves, muscles, blood vessels, osseous structures and/or organs.  Since all of the standard tests such as x-rays, myelograms, CAT scans, electromyography, etc., do not show the fascial restrictions, it is thought that an extremely high percentage of people suffering with pain, headaches, and/or lack of motion may be having fascial problems, but most go undiagnosed.

Fascia is a specialized system of the body whose appearance is similar to a spider’s web or a sweater. Fascia interpenetrates every structure of our body.  The fascial system is not just a system of separate coverings; it is actually one uninterrupted structure which exists from your head to your feet.  You can begin to see that each part of the entire body is connected to every other part by the fascia, like the yarn in the sweater.  You see this very thin webbing when you look at chicken or other meat, although there are thick bands of it, too.

When fascia is injured

In the normal healthy state, the fascia is relaxed and wavy in configuration.  It has the ability to stretch and move without restriction.  It is holding our organs and other tissue of our bodies in place—else they would all sink down!  When we experience physical trauma or inflammation, however, the fascia loses its flexibility. 

Under these circumstances, fascia can become very tight and can be a source of tension to the rest of the body.  Trauma, such as a fall, whiplash, surgery or just habitual poor posture over time has a cumulative effect.  The fascia can exert excessive pressure, producing pain, headaches, and /or restriction of motion.  When fascia tightens in one area, it can put tension on adjacent structures, as well as on structures in far away areas—due to the interconnectedness of this “sweater”.  Some patients have bizarre pain symptoms that appear to be unrelated to the original or primary complaint.

Treating fascial restrictions

This is a whole body approach to treatment.  A good example is the chronic low back pain patient; although the low back is primarily involved, the patient may also have significant discomfort in the neck.  This is due to the gradual tightening of the muscles and especially of the fascia as this tightness has crept its way up the back, eventually creating neck and head pain.  Experience shows that optimal resolution of the low back pain requires release of the fascia of both the head and neck; if the neck tightness is not also released it will continue to apply a “drag” in the downward direction until fascial restriction and pain has again returned to the low back.  Often structures in the front of the body tighten, putting strain on the back.  The back is painful, but releasing the structures in the front are necessary in order to achieve lasting results.

Myofascial Release allows us to look at each patient as a unique individual.  Our therapy sessions are hands on treatments during which our therapists use a multitude of MFR techniques and movement therapy.  The goal of MFR is to restore the individual’s freedom of movement, so they may return to a pain-free, active lifestyle.

Techniques we use

MFR is a relatively new addition to the “tool box” of the physical or occupational therapist.  The therapist is able to use all the techniques we generally equate with these therapies, but will primarily use this one because of its effectiveness, particularly with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, headaches, chronic neck and back pain, and pain from scarring .  It is an extremely mild and gentle form of stretching with long holds that has a profound effect upon the body tissues.  Because of its gentleness, many individuals wonder how it could possibly work.

The type of Myofascial Release technique chosen by the therapist will depend upon where in the body the therapist finds the fascia restricted.  A key to the success of Myofascial Release treatments is to keep the pressure and stretch extremely mild.  Muscle tissue responds to a relatively firm stretch, but this is not the case with fascia.  The collagenous fibers of fascia are extremely tough and resistant to stretch.  It is estimated that fascia has a tensile strength of as much as 2000 pounds per square inch.  It is no wonder that when it tightens it can cause pain!

Under a small amount of pressure applied by a therapist’s hands, fascia will soften and begin to release when the pressure is sustained over time.  This can be likened to pulling on a piece of taffy with only a small, sustained pressure.

Another important aspect of MFR techniques is holding the technique long enough—no less than two minutes.  The therapeutic affect will begin to take place after holding a gentle stretch and following the tissue three dimensionally with skilled, sensitive hands. People often leave after the first treatment feeling like nothing happened.  Later, even a day later, they may begin to feel the effects of the treatment.

How long does treatment take?

In general, acute cases will resolve with a few treatments.  The longer the problem has been present, generally the longer it will take to resolve the problem.  Some chronic conditions may require three to four months of treatments two to three times a week to obtain optimal results.  Range of motion and stretching exercises given by the therapist are helpful and necessary.

It is felt that release of tight tissue is accompanied by release of trapped metabolic waste products in the surrounding tissue and blood stream.  It is highly recommended that one flush the system by drinking a lot of fluid during the course of treatment.

(Our thanks to John F. Barnes, P.T., Gary D. Keown, P.T., and Tim Juett, P.T. for some of the material shared in this article.)

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