Emily Bilodeau, LMT (207) 779-6671


How Does Myofascial Release Work?

To best explain why massage therapy can change our fascial matrix, we need a clear understanding of fascia and the thixotropy model.

What is fascia? It's a kind of connective tissue that wraps and connects every body structure. Ever skinned a chicken before you cooked it? Fascia is that cobweb-like layer that binds the skin to the meat, but it's much more than that. Cathy Ulrich does a much better job explaining this, likely because I'm a vegetarian!
In a 2007 article, she asked reader to consider "what the tissue looked like when you removed the skin. That thin white/clear film covering the muscle is fascia. Now imagine this fascia not only covering the muscle, but permeating the muscle belly, separating all the individual muscle fibers, dividing muscles from each other, and forming the structural framework for the whole body. This framework includes muscles, bone, skin, and organs." Clearly, this is a much more vivid and effective description than mine.
photo of myofascial shoulder release
For years, massage therapists have been taught that fascia responds to pressure, and that with enough force, we could re-shape fascia and recreate a comfortable and efficient myoskeletal structure by doing this. This is the basic idea behind the thixotropy model of massage therapy: pressure creates changes in the fascial matrix which allows massage therapists to make changes in your physical shape and function. Our manual forces create tissue fluidity.

So what's the problem? Well, what shape is your butt? If pressure alone were enough to create fascial change, your backside would be shaped like the chair you're sitting in. The weight of your upper body, in combination with the sheer amount of time that most of time of spend seated during the day, should create enough pressure to reshape our butts. But it doesn't……

Or, consider the words of John Barnes, a leader in the field of myofascial release:
"Restricted fascia has the tensile strength of 2,000 pounds per square inch." Is there a massage therapist strong enough to work through that with even more pressure? And is there a client strong enough to endure that without a trip to the ER?

So, what's actually going on to create your myofascial release? Well, we have a few theories out there, most of which start in our nervous system. Some theories compete directly with each other, and some may be true simultaneously.

  • Oblique Pressure: It may not be the amount of pressure that creates thixotropy. It may be the direction in which the pressure is applied. Instead of pushing directly into soft tissue, myofascial release techniques use a shear force with or across the direction of restriction. It may be this oblique pressure that allows gentler methods like craniosacral therapy and John Barnes' methods to create fascial releases.
  • Piezoelectric Effect: mechanical disruptions to our fascia create an electric spark. This spark may be an essential communication to our nervous system to drop our tension.
  • Decompression: methods like Kinesio Tape and cupping lift the fascia and soft tissue instead of compressing it. This lifting and decompression increases local circulation and likely changes nerve signals within the fascia.
  • Biochemical Signals: Nervous system signals may be only the first in a chain of events that create fascial release. We have a lack of research about the chemical and hormonal changes that occur in our muscles and fascia during a massage. There are likely changes in our body chemistry that facilitate our fascial unwinding.

Fascia Research Society holds a regular Fascial Research Congress and actively pursues our better scientific understanding of fascia and how to better work with the myofascial system for our wellness. They're making huge research contributions to the field of massage therapy, for which I am grateful. Someday, I hope we have a much clearer answer to the question of fascia.
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