Self-help myofascial release – help yourself out of chronic pain
Myofascial release is a therapy that works to release restrictions and trigger points that have formed in fascia and are contributing to chronic pain conditions, such as chronic pelvic pain. You can receive treatment from a trained therapist, and you can also treat yourself.
In its natural state fascia is a complex three-dimensional web of free-moving structural tissue that constantly shapes and reshapes itself in response to our movements and the demands we make on it. In its healthy state, fascia moves fluidly and seamlessly to distribute tension and maintain balance in the body.
However, fascia can suffer accident or injury or be damaged in some other way, for example by surgery. When this happens the fascial web can snag and lose its flexibility and ability to move. This causes fascial restrictions and trigger points, and it is these that lead to chronic pain. Other major causes of fascial damage and restrictions are the overuse and underuse of our bodies associated with modern lifestyles, and psychological stress and trauma.
How do fascial restrictions cause pain?
According to leading fascial researcher Robert Schleip, fascia is an interconnected tensional network that adapts according to local tensional demands. In other words, fascia constantly changes and adapts to whatever pressures are put on it. Any damage to fascia causes it to snag and tear, pulling the web out of shape, similar to a snag in a jumper.
Fascia contains special cells called fibroblasts responsible for maintaining its structure. When any damage occurs to the fascia, the fibroblasts produce collagen, the strong structural protein, to repair the damage. In many cases, the fibroblasts complete the repair and the fascial web returns to normal balanced function.
However, there are also many occasions when the damage creates increased tension in the fascia around the injury. This tension triggers the fibroblasts to keep producing more collagen as they repeatedly try to repair the damage. Over time this extra collagen creates adhesions (where the fascia sticks to itself and other tissues), thickening of the fascia (called fibrosis), and a reduction in the fascia’s ability to slide freely.
At first the fascial tension is limited to the original area of damage but over time this spreads and starts to affect adjoining areas and then to create more widespread changes as the lines of tension throughout the body alter. At this stage fascial tension can cause changed muscle tone, a loss of coordination, and imbalanced posture where one side is favoured more than the other. Over time this creates a change to the balance of the whole body structure and leads to chronic pain conditions.
Understanding how the body can become stuck and misaligned like this, it becomes clear how self-help myofascial release can help to undo these issues. The beauty of myofascial release is that you can do this for yourself through stretches or exercises using simple tools such as balls.
Principles of self myofascial release
Heat before you treat
When your body is cold, fascia is tighter and harder to treat. Like putty, it becomes softer and more pliable as it warms up. You can warm your body through exercise or through damp heat, such as taking a shower.
Little and often is best
If you try to do too much too soon this can lead to irritation and more pain in the short term. Limit your sessions to 20-30 minutes a day and work on different areas using a range of exercises to help release restrictions.
Stay within your comfort zone
The rule of ‘no pain, no gain’ doesn’t apply when working with fascia. If working on an area cause intense pain, your fascia will actually tense to protect itself as opposed to releasing and letting go. Use a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is no pain and 10 is excruciating and keep your pain levels at an acceptable maximum of 7.
Maintain the pressure
Fascia responds best to longer and sustained pressure, so staying in a single stretch or on a tender point for 90 – 120 seconds or more allows time for the fascia to start to let go. And, unlike muscle exercises, you don’t need to repeat each stretch or exercise more than once in a session.
Pay attention to your body
Fascial restrictions and trigger points create referred pain patterns which spread through lines of tension in your body. As you work to release these, you will often feel pain in other places. This is generally a good indication of where you should work next.
Self-help myofascial release is an effective way of helping yourself out of chronic pain as it progressively allows your body to release and rebalance. We call it the ‘slow fix’ because it takes time for your body to undo itself. However, working regularly with your fascia can bring long term benefits of improve balance and posture, as well as decreasing pain and movement restrictions.
If you’d like some guidance about how to start your practice, why not check out our Living Pain Free online self-help courses.