Can you imagine a massage without lotion or oil? Uncomfortable, right?
I used to think that, too. But when I had low back pain, someone recommended an an expert oil-free massage therapist to me, and I tried it out. It was a profound experience. The sessions were so relaxing, and my low back pain completely disappeared.
You see, Swedish massage (the ubiquitous spa standard) relies on lotion so the massage therapist's hands can slide over the skin. The hands are always in motion, as they ice-skate over the body.
Without slippery oil, the therapist can be very precise about what tissue they target and what they do with it. There is a direct connection, a hold, between the massage therapist's hands and the client's tissues. The sustained pressure melts tight muscles and connective tissue.
The theme is Quality over Quantity.
Oil free massage is more purposeful, more mindful. It has to be, because rapid strokes without lotion would irritate the skin. Instead of making a dozen repetitive strokes with no effect, the therapist makes one right move, and waits for the tissue to melt. In the hands of an skilled therapist, this kind of direct, intentional, and sustained pressure is worth its weight in gold.
This style of massage changed everything for me. I apprenticed with that expert, and now Myofascial Release therapy (MFR) is the focus of my therapeutic massage practice.
So, let's get specific about how it's so effective at treating soft tissue and pain, what it feels like, and who can benefit from Myofascial Release massage.
What is Myofascial Release Therapy doing and why would you choose it?
MFR focuses on releasing fascia, connective tissue. There are two great reasons to focus on fascia in a massage.
One, fascia is everywhere. You can think of it like seran wrap that encases and connects every structure in your body. It wraps around every muscle cell, around every bone, around every organ... and it weaves you together.
MFR is able to hook into this fascial net in one spot, and use it to engage up and down the fascial chain. Like pulling on a thread of a sweater. Pulling on one corner can unwind the entire system.
Because of this, clients often notice far-reaching effects from MFR. For example, you might feel a chronic knot in your neck release during hip massage.
This makes MFR an efficient treatment choice.
Plus, we can use fascia to engage with deep structures we can't touch with our hands. For example, fascia wraps around bones and joints, so we can use it to massage deep joint capsules. For this reason, it's a great choice to use Myofascial Release massage for knee pain and frozen shoulder.
This connectedness also just feels nice. It invites introspection; you notice relationships within your own body. MFR is popular with yoga enthusiasts and people who practice mind-body meditation for this reason.
The second reason to massage fascia is the more exciting one, in my opinion.
We've talked about where fascia is, but not what it's doing. Fascia is our body-sense organ. It's rich with nerves (in fact, it has 6x more nerves than muscle tissue) which it uses to create propioception, your sense of where your body is.
By focusing on fascia over muscle, we can more strongly affect the nervous system.
This is significant for the relaxation and mental health benefits of massage. Using fascial release to downregulate the nervous system eases stress, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and other conditions related to an overactive SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System, also called fight-or-flight mode).
But the nervous system benefits extend to muscle health, too.
I split this article into two halves, and the other half dives into how fascia affects muscle health and function. The short version is that when fascia relaxes, circulation improves, propiception improves, and muscles also relax. The whole area is healthier.
Muscle tightness is rarely a situation where a muscle is physically stuck in contraction and needs to be ironed out, but rather, a protective tension that the subconscious is choosing to create.
If you work at a desk all the time, your body learns to have tight shoulders and upper back so you're ready to go back to the desk in a flash. It's an efficient choice, it saves energy. But of course, it's not healthy. A soothing nervous system signal will allow the muscles to relax and re-learn how to be.
When you put all of this together, fascia is a powerful tool for effecting both soft tissue and the nervous system. Considering that chronic pain is a combination of both those factors, MFR becomes an excellent treatment choice.
What does MFR feel like?
MFR is gentle, calming, and enjoyable.
The trademark of MFR is its intentional pace, which gives tissue time to "melt." The stillness of a long stretch inspires a calm, meditative feeling that's deeply relaxing.
Some clients report entering a trance-like or dreaming-while-awake state during their treatment. It invites a deep and profound sense of body awareness.
If Swedish feels like hands gliding through your muscles, myofascial release is like having your body slowly ironed out. Imagine a firm hand traveling slowly down your back, decompressing the spine and soothing the muscles as it goes.
Myofascial release can also involve stillness. If you have low back pain, I might compress the muscles over your hips, angling my pressure down toward your feet. I'll hang out there until the muscles start to soften and feel like they're "melting." That's the "release" in myofascial release.
In other words, it's a way of working WITH the body and its painful areas, without trying to force a change. There's no painful digging or pinpoint pressure.
- Ian Harvey, LMT (from his blog)
Is Myofascial Release painful?
MFR may use light to deep pressure. It may be intense at times, but it should never be painful. The slow, sustained pace of the work prevents any skin irritation. Myofascial Release does not cause bruising or nausea. It's very safe.
The level of pressure determines which tissue is engaged with (superficial to deep). This is true for all types of massage.
Then we have six options for what direction to stretch it in. Maintaining the same pressure, we can stretch it left, right, up, or down. These "lateral shifts" usually have the most range and therefore cause the greatest fascial or muscular release. With more pressure we can stretch tissue deep to the body, and with Cupping we can stretch tissue superficially away from the body.
MFR is able to take tissue in any of the six directions.
The pressure in MFR is often angled sideways, to stretch tissue in the direction it needs to go in (for example, towards a tight scar), not just down.
You don't see lateral shifts as much in Swedish massage. The lotion has made everything slippery, so the practitioner's must use force to push down into the body.
This is one major way that MFR and Swedish massage are different, and how MFR manages to be so effective at releasing tissue while being gentle and pain-free.
As you now know, fascia is a highly sensitive organ. It only needs to be engaged with at the appropriate depth and stretch to cause relaxation. It's not necessary to use extreme pressure. Excessive pressure can even be dangerous.
Extreme or painful pressure will cause fascia or muscles to release initially, to prevent tearing and tissue damage... but then the tissue will tighten up later, in a protective response. If you ever feel pain during a massage, it's important to alert your massage therapist.
Massage is not exercise; there's no benefit to pushing yourself to the point of pain.
Who can Myofascial Release help?
If you are experiencing pain, stiffness, or tension, you may benefit from MFR. Some conditions Myofascial Release helps include:
Headaches & Migraines
Fibromyalgia / Myofascial pain syndrome
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome / Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
MFR is also a good choice for relaxing and re-connecting with your body, because of its strong connection to the nervous system. MFR may help patients with PTSD or anxiety.
After a car accident, Myofascial Release massage is a great choice because it simultaneously treats inflammation, soft tissue damage, and the overactive SNS. This helps with many symptoms car accidents cause, such as whiplash, neck stiffness, and difficulty sleeping.
Can I do self Myofascial Release with a fascia blaster / tennis ball / foam roller / cupping?
Yes and no. Learn more about self-massage tools (coming soon).
Does Myofascial Release Massage really work?
Yes, MFR is an effective treatment that addresses both the mind and the body for uniquely wholesome pain relief and relaxation. It restores balance to the connective tissue that weaves through your whole body.
If you've only ever experienced Swedish massage, give Myofascial Release a chance, and see what it can do for you.
Did you enjoy this article? Learn more about fascia.
Jesse Martel is a Licensed Massage Therapist who practices in Seattle, Washington. She has helped many people overcome neck/shoulder injuries and chronic back pain with Upgraded Myofascial Release massage. Treatment includes Aromatherapy, Myofascial Release, Cupping, Lymphatic Drainage, and Kinesiology Tape at one flat rate. Her website is SageBodyworkSeattle.com.