Getting Unstuck With Massage Therapy
By Guest Blogger: Carol Bui
If you’ve been keeping up with health and fitness trends, you’ve probably heard of “fascia”. The terms “myofascial stretch” and “myofascial release” are kind of trendy right now, with the rising popularity of foam rollers and other stretching aids (“myo-” meaning pertaining to muscle).
There’s a reason why it’s gaining traction. Only recently has there been significant studies on fascia and its relevance to our functionality as humans in motion, and we still know very little. The studies reveal, however, how crucial it is to our wellness and quality of life.
So first of all…what is it? It’s essentially the ‘Saran wrap’ around our muscles and structures throughout the body. It encloses and separates muscle fibers, organs, bones, vessels. It’s made of dense regular connective tissue, much like ligaments and tendons, but much more flexible and pliable. Most importantly, it’s continuous.
You can think of it as a huge intertwining web that encases the body, with all the little pockets for the many different parts…and connecting them. It is superficial as well as layers deep. It reduces friction between the structures and distributes the mechanical tension when there is skeletal movement.
Do you need a visual? Well, even if you don’t, I want to share a mental image with you anyway, one that my instructors shared back in massage school. You know when you work with raw chicken there’s a white, filmy, web-like membrane covering the meat? That’s fascia. If you’ve played around with it, you probably saw that it’s kind of tough. You can tear it from the chicken, but pulling the fascia itself apart is a bit difficult.
Imagine what our fascia is like compared to that of a chicken breast. Our fascia is really flexible but it’s tough. With repetitive movement, injury, stress, lack of circulation, inflammation, dehydration it can get sticky and thick. It can shorten. Then it makes other parts overstretch as it pulls. It gets stuck.
When fascia gets stuck, there’s pain and limited range of motion. It might change your posture. It definitely changes the way you move, resulting in new habits that lead to imbalance and dysfunction… making other parts of your body work harder to support those new habits. Then you get repetitive stress or maybe inflammation in newly-harder-working parts… and the cycle continues. You just get stuck! When you consider that fascia covers EVERYTHING, not just muscle tissue… you can see the implications.
The ‘stuckness’ goes beyond the physiological. Stuck fascia traps emotions and trauma. Your brain stores everything about any particular moment in time… sights, smells, sounds… and physical state. This info is tucked away in the subconscious. That’s why you might think of your grandmother when you smell tuberose… or formaldehyde. Or you begin salivating when you drive by golden arches, even after you’ve eaten a full meal.
When a person experiences a traumatic event, everything happening to their body at the time is recorded, including what muscles are engaged and where pain is occurring. Very often these incidents have such a deep effect that parts of the body remain in that same state or position for a long time. Sometimes for years, decades, or lifetimes. Perpetual stuckness.
What will get you unstuck? That’s where massage comes in. Stretching, activity, and hydration helps but in many cases, manual therapy or massage is needed. Very often there is fascial buildup or ‘adhesions’, particularly with repetitive motion where tissues are constantly sliding against each other. Or when the body remains in the same position for long periods of time (eh-hem, desk work) and fascia kind of acts like a glue to hold it in place.
When there is tissue damage or injury, there is likely scar tissue. These adhesions or scar tissue can put pressure on surrounding structures, causing pain or inflammation. In this case, stretching won’t help quite as much as having a professional manually break up those adhesions or scars.
Several things happen with this ‘unsticking’ process. When a massage practitioner manipulates the fascia and muscle fibers, local circulation is increased which means that area gets the blood and nutrients it needs. That alone makes a huge difference because the tissue is re-hydrated, becoming more supple and pliable, making it more resistant to injury.
Cellular debris is flushed out of the area, while the incoming blood nourishes and decreases pain. The tissues are lengthened, eliminating excess tension on connecting structures. When you consider the movement chains of fascia throughout the body, you can understand how significant this is on its functionality. Those are just the mechanical effects.
During the course of a whole session, the unsticking process is taken to a whole new level. The kneading, pulling, pushing, gliding, compression (commonly known as “Swedish” massage) not only manipulate tissue but relaxes the mind and body by activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (unless you have a not-so-competent therapist).
Your heart rate slows down, endorphins and serotonin are released. Your brain tells your muscles that it’s okay to let go, that they no longer have to be in working mode (hello, those bench presses you did two hours ago are not happening anymore, so let go already!).
For people in a more severe loop of stuckness, like those with high anxiety and/or a history of emotional or physical trauma, it might take multiple sessions before they are able to reach a completely relaxed and open state. Sometimes with the right therapist it happens sooner.
Massage is a great way to reintroduce safe touch, teaching the body that something good, not scary, is happening when a person lays their hands on you. If a therapist ‘unlocks’ a fascial restriction that had been storing powerful, traumatic memories, a release occurs… and that is the ultimate unsticking. I’m not kidding when I say that a good massage can be positively life changing.
How do you know if you have stuck fascia? Well, pretty much everyone does somewhere on their body. The problem is that it’s really hard to quantitatively test for it with an MRI, x-ray, ultrasound, etc. Medical doctors often come to different conclusions for the symptoms.
Do you have pain or discomfort anywhere on your body? Muscle tension? Limited range of motion? Are you constantly under stress? Not sleeping well? Depressed? Anything go numb at anytime? Are you physically active? Sedentary? Been injured in a car accident, work or sports incident? Had surgery?
If you are a living human being, chances are high that something is stuck! That said, while massage is generally safe (and beneficial) to everyone you should always make sure your doctor says it’s safe for you to receive one before scheduling your first appointment.
Have I mentioned that receiving a massage is a highly pleasurable experience in itself? Even if you’re a freak of nature and are never in any state of stuckness, it just feels heavenly. Make it a regular part of your life!
For more information on massage, fascia, and fascia release, check out the table below the author bio for lots of great links!
Carol is a Licensed Massage Practitioner and owner of Rapture Massage and Bodyworks in Tacoma, WA.
As a therapist she is versatile and sensitive to individual needs, whether it is deep relaxation, injury treatment or somewhere in between. She finds immense joy in being part of a clients’ healing and life enrichment process.
When she is not in the office, Carol is typically either performing at parties and various local restaurants as a middle eastern dancer (“bellydancer”), playing with her two dogs, or making noise on her guitar and drums. She is an accomplished singer-songwriter with three independently released albums.
Carol firmly believes in the healing power of touch, music and dance.
For more information about Carol and Rapture Massage & Bodyworks, visit http://www.rapturemassageandbodyworks.com
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||Lots of Links|
|For more info on massage therapy
||massagetherapy.com, A Public Education site powered by Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals|
|More info on fascia||Anatomy Trains page on Fascia and Tensegrity|
|Studies on the effects of fascia release|
|More about the mind-fascia connection and John Barnes’ style of Myofascial Release|