Massage is defined as the process of working on the soft tissues of the body externally through movements like pressing, rubbing and sliding to achieve positive health effects such as stress reduction, pain relief and improved sleep. The mechanisms thought to be involved in this are soft tissue manipulation bringing about better blood circulation, lymphatic flow, fascial release and nerve ending stimulation, among others.
There is a large number of different forms of massage originating from cultures all around the world. Some of the popular ones are Thai massage, acupuncture and acupressure, myofascial release, Swedish massage, Abhyangam or ayurvedic massage, cupping therapy etc.
In this article, we are going to focus on what’s known as myofascial release or just myofascial massage. It is also known as trigger point therapy or myofascial trigger point therapy. This massage concept, which has grown in popularity significantly in recent years, focuses on working on the fascia.
What is The Fascia?
It is a thin film of connective tissue that holds all our body components in place. But it is much more than just a system to provide structural integrity to the body(which is what its main role has been assumed to be traditionally). The fascia has a very large number of nerves making it highly sensitive. The fascia is said to react to stress and constrict in response. This is one way that the fascia gets disturbed which leads to negative symptoms, most commonly localised pain.
What Makes it So Interesting? “It’s All Connected Through the Fascia.”
Traditional anatomy only involved studying the skeleton and muscles and the related joints. The fascia has largely been ignored. The skeleton and muscles make up an overly simplistic mechanical model of the human anatomy.
The fascia meanwhile goes all over and across our body cells creating a complex network of nerves that create a bioelectric communication network in the body. We know very little about the fascia as it has been studied very little. We don’t have much published research on it yet.
However, the few researchers who have studied the fascia deeply reveal how the potential implications of this organ system are massive. Practitioners who work with the fascia swear by the efficacy of their work.
Tom Myers, a world-renowned physiotherapist with over 40 years of experience in the field has published multiple books and articles in scientific journals on the fascia in particular. He was inspired and taught by Ida Rolf, a pioneer in fascia study. Tom's research involves studying the fascia through dissections of cadavers and live imaging of functioning fascia as well.
“After the original publication(of his book Anatomy Trains), I found earlier iterations of similar ideas – in the meridians of acupuncture, of course, but also in the sketches of Leonardo, in Hoepke and Tittel, German anatomists of the 1930s, and in the work of Françoise Meziére in France. These linkages (and such models as ‘kinetic chains’) are often defined functionally, whereas Anatomy Trains are connections through the fascial fabric, and as such are common pathways for myofascial force transmission” Tom explains.
The highly nerve-rich structure of the fascia in particular is what makes it so significant. The fascia is said to possess a proprioception function, that is, the sense of self-movement, force, and body position, often referred to as “sixth sense”. The fascia is also highly involved in the mechanisms for both physical and psychosomatic pains.
How Does Myofascial Release Work?
“myo” means muscle and thus “myofascial” means- to do with the fascia and muscles. As we mentioned, the fascia responds to stress by constricting and tightening. You’ve probably heard the term “musculoskeletal” a lot more than “myofascial” because as we said, the fascia has largely been ignored in traditional anatomy.
We mentioned how the fascia constricts in response to stress. Additionally, there are other causes that might cause the fascia to get dysfunctional at some places too. This usually involves the fascia becoming dry and non-elastic, when it’s supposed to be the opposite.
Under myofascial release, the practitioner works in the area where the fascia is damaged to try and undo it. Different practitioners have very different methods, but this is the general approach to what is known as myofascial release.
How Do You Keep the Fascia Healthy?
As we mentioned, the fascia gets impaired through both physical and mental stress and trauma. So having a generally healthy lifestyle with optimal physical and mental health is obviously very important. For fascia health, in particular, exercise- particularly that involving functional movements is very helpful. Correct posture is critical as well.
We don’t have much direct research on the effect of diet on fascia health but one thing we do know is sugar has a very deleterious effect on the fascia and accelerates the drying and stiffening process of the fascia that we had discussed earlier. Apart from that, based on the composition of the fascia, a diet adequate in protein, collagen and micronutrients is assumed to be important as well.
Speaking to an Expert
We spoke to Saurabh Khotkar, a massage therapist based here in Pune who specialises in myofascial massage. He is going to be conducting a masterclass for iThrive Academy on his massage practice on 20th September.
Saurabh has been practising massage therapy for 7 years with over 2500 hours of massage therapy provided. He tells us that most of his knowledge comes from his experience with clients rather than any of the training he has done. He is a strong believer in the role of the fascia in health and disease. He tells us that the fascia is like a “cache memory” of the body. It holds on to stress and trauma we experience which manifests as dysfunctions and stiffening in the fascia. Relaxing and restoring the fascia is like clearing this cache memory, so your system is not weighed down carrying tensions from the past. Psychological events and emotions, especially manifest strongly in the fascia, leading to chronic pains and other chronic health issues.
Saurabh’s work involves re-aligning and restoring the fascia to reverse these problems. He tells us how his massage sessions can get very intense. Just as the fascia responds to various physical and emotional traumas, tensing and knotting itself as a defence mechanism, it can also relax and restore itself as a response to an empathetic and well-intentioned touch.
He says his massage sessions are scheduled for an hour usually but often get extended when a good flow state is achieved, often extending over 3 hours. Clients have reported having hallucinogenic experiences during the therapy.
His practice also incorporates other practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi. He has coined a new term for his practice- “Yogasparsha”. The word Sparsha comes from Buddhist scriptures. It means the coming together of an external physical entity, one of our own sense organs and the psychological consciousness. Explaining his practice of Yogasparsha, Saurabh talks about the healing power of “touch therapy” which involves an “intentional and well-trained touch” to heal from pain, tension and psychological trauma.
According to Saurabh his practice involves the coming together of traditional practices such as Vedic and Yoga therapies with modern physiotherapy science. His experience with clients has taught him what works best.
To learn more about his practice you can register for the upcoming masterclass here.
It includes self-massage tips and techniques as well which are useful for everyone and not just practitioners.