Myofascial release and the myofascial (fascial) system are getting a lot of attention in the realms of science, alternative medicine, and bodywork these days as researchers define, and redefine, what the fascial system is, how it functions, and why we should be paying attention to it.
It can be a lot to take in, especially when talking about a system of the body that your doctor may not even know much about.
This article aims to unravel the confusion, exploring some of the current understandings relative to fascia and some of the popular trends in bodywork.
A View Of The Myofascial System
There are two main places we recommend when people ask where to start their research into the world of fascia.
The first is the Fascial Net Plastination Project (FNPP), a collaboration of the Fascia Research Society, Somatics Academy, and the Gubener Plastinate (GmbH) in Guben, Germany. It is comprised of anatomists, bodyworkers, movement educators, acupuncturists, physical therapists, academics, professors, physicians, and dissection enthusiasts from around the world dedicated to education about fascia.
After years of work, in December 2021, the Body Worlds Museum in Berlin unveiled the first ever 3-D human fascia plastinate, a 3-D replication of an entire human fascial system. Named FR:EIA (Fascia Revealed: Educating Interconnected Anatomy), the exhibit shows in stunning detail the connectedness and inter-connectedness of everything in the body through the myofascial system.
Although the FNPP deals with non-living tissue, plastination has made it clear that our bodies truly are one continuous fabric.
The second provides a view of the myofascial system in a living body. The work of Jean Claude Guimberteau, a French hand surgeon, shows that a force applied to the surface of the skin is transmitted deep into living tissue via a continuous bodywide multifibrillar network, the myofascial system.
His groundbreaking research is captured in his film, Strolling Under The Skin, and in his book, Architecture of Human Living Fascia: Cells and Extracellular Matrix as Revealed by Endoscopy. Both capture the beauty of living tissue and how it responds in the body, gliding, separating, and supporting as a continuous whole.
Why The Myofascial System Is Important
With a basic understanding of what the myofascial system looks like and a bit about how it functions, one can begin to see how everything in the body is influenced by the health of the myofascial system. The myofascial system is the most omnipresent and fundamental system of the body. It is the only actual whole body system. It’s the building block of all the organs, muscles, nerves, and everything else you can think of in your body.
It also is the thing responsible for weaving all these pieces together into the shape and thing you call your body itself. Organs and muscles are not sitting in there loose, they are woven into place and held all together with this web of fibers we call the myofascial system. And this web can be traced from larger strands to smaller, all the way through the body, into and out of every organ and muscle, all the way to the cells themselves.
There is no break, no stop, and no disconnection in this web. This web does not stop where an organ or muscle begins, it weaves itself to create the wrapping, protective layer of that organ or muscle, and then continues on inside to weave the internal pockets and shapes of that organ or muscle.
What does this mean for you?
The fluid of your fascial system stiffens whenever and wherever there is excessive, damaging force transmitted into your body. Impact, cuts, bruises, surgeries, and even long term excessive tension and holding causes your fascial system to stiffen in response. For a variety of reasons, people don’t always recover the full and proper movement of the myofascial system after injury, sickness, repetitive movements, stress, surgery, accident, or trauma.
Areas of stiffened, unmoving fascia are called restrictions.
Whatever any given person’s unique pattern of myofascial restrictions is, there are a variety of ways problems begin to show up. Think of the myofascial system as a one-piece body suit. Obviously the size and shape of this suit matters to how your body fits together and moves.
Restricted fascia distorts the shape of this suit and causes problems all over throughout your body. Restricted fascia pulls bones together and twists them out of proper alignment.
It causes muscles which should glide across each other to become glued together in less functional groups that pull on each other. It causes organs to be pulled, fluid flow to be impaired, and tissues overall to stiffen and harden, and to be in constant states of inflammation.
Discs are pulled and shoved out of place, or crushed, while nerves are tacked down and impinged, and joints are damaged to the point of complete failure, all by fascial restrictions which now pull throughout the completely continuous, connected web of the myofascial system.
On top of it all, muscles are sore and tight because they are trying to cope with and compensate for all this distortion and difficulty. (Those tight and sore, overworked muscles are actually a large part of what people are suffering from, complaining about, and trying to fix, with no awareness of the underlying problems those muscles are coping with.)
Forms Of Myofascial Release
Which brings us to ways in which you might care for the health of your myofascial system. This is best done through some form of myofascial release.
Which is where things can start to feel confusing.
There are multiple ways in which practitioners might refer to myofascial release and myofascial modalities. This can include foam rolling, Rolfing, active release, pin and stretch, Structural Integration, Block Therapy, band flossing, trigger point release, direct myofascial release, self myofascial release, indirect myofascial release, Graston technique, Heller method, myofascial massage, myofascial stretching, Melt method, Gua Sha, and John Barnes myofascial release.
Some describe myofascial release (MFR) as a specialized technique used by physical therapists to treat soft tissue problems.
Others say it is a type of gentle, constant massage that releases tightness and pain throughout your myofascial tissues.
Still others, MFR is an osteopathic technique used to treat somatic dysfunction involving myofascial tissues and supportive structures.
And, MFR involves applying gentle, sustained pressure into myofascial connective tissue restrictions to eliminate pain and restore motion.
Perhaps the simplest definition is that myofascial release is any bodywork technique that works with the fascia.
However, that does not mean that all techniques are created equal.
How To Choose The Myofascial Release Right For Me
Remember, the fascial system responds to forces into the body. Remember, the fascial system stiffens and becomes restricted whenever there is excessive or damaging force transmitted into the body.
There seem to be 2 main options when it comes to choosing a form of myofascial release that works best for you. One is to choose a method that breaks up adhesions, that digs into the body, and aggressively works out knots and restrictions in the tissues. Common forms of more aggressive myofascial release include foam rolling, Rolfing, Graston technique, Gua Sha, Heller method, active release, Structural Integration, trigger point release, and band flossing.
These can provide great results in improved mobility within a short amount of time and are often put in the category of “quick fix.”
However, for many, the results are temporary as the body responds to the forces used to work through restricted tissue. Often it is perceived by the body as injury and the body responds by repairing the tissue, often thicker and more restricted.
A good way to judge if a technique might be too aggressive is to consider the response in your body. If you are gritting your teeth, wincing in pain, tightening, clenching, bracing, or forcing yourself through something. . . chances are your myofascial system is tightening to protect.
A second option is to choose a method that works with what the myofascial tissue will allow, starting slower and gentler, giving time for tissue to change without force (usually over a period of 3-5 minutes or longer). Common forms of this gentler approach to myofascial release are Melt method, myofascial stretching, Block Therapy, and John Barnes myofascial release. Because these methods are gentler, it can be tempting to think they don’t work. However, they are generally longer lasting and become more a way of life and approach to health.
A good way to judge if a method is working with your myofascial system in a more gentle way is to consider the response in your body. If you are able to soften into the pressures, feeling engagement with areas that are tight or tender in a way that doesn’t cause you to brace or clench, and if your practitioner sinks into those area over a period of several minutes, still without you having a need to brace or clench. . . chances are your myofascial system is opening, rehydrating, and beginning to glide again in those restricted areas.
Want To Learn More
We are biased toward the John Barnes Myofascial Release Approach. We have found it to be the most effective way to improve the health of the myofascial system of the body and the health of the entirety of one’s being.
If you would like to learn more, give us a call or fill out the form here.
We look forward to hearing from you!