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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Massage – It Isn't Just About Pampering

Dim lights…relaxing music, or the faint sound of trickling water from a nearby fountain…the scent of eucalyptus filling the room-further infused by an “essential” oil…a tall, soft, cushy table with a cool white draping sheet…and an attentive masseuse standing by to indulge your flesh in comfort and luxury-the elements of the perfect massage.

Not anymore.  While a relaxing massage is not exactly a thing of the past, the trend in the health and fitness industry (and elsewhere) now places greater emphasis on

what is called soft tissue work.  Soft tissue work is rapidly becoming the preferred method of body/recovery work used to treat tight muscles, muscular imbalances, joint stiffness, and related issues which often contribute more to pain, discomfort, and poor athletic performance than do overt injury.  Athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone with an interest in staying active and pain/injury-free can benefit from therapies of this sort when experienced on a consistent basis.

What constitutes soft tissue work?  Soft tissue work centers around fascia. Fascia is a thin tissue that covers all the organs of the body. Have you ever pulled apart a chicken and noticed a clear, cellophane-like film stretching over the muscle?-that’s fascia.  It covers every muscle and every fiber within a muscle.  All muscle stretching is actually stretching of the fascia and the muscle within it or, the myofascial unit. Fascia and surrounding tissues are the targets of many therapeutic modalities used by body work professionals to promote healthy muscles and joints, improve posture and skeletal structure, and to relieve pain.  When muscle fibers are injured, the fibers and the fascia which surrounds it become short and tight. When muscle tension is unbalanced, this tension can compress nerves and muscles and cause pain.  Myofascial release then, is a stretching of the fascia and is used to equalize muscle tension throughout the body. 

Chiropractic doctors use soft tissue manipulation to relax muscle spasms, break up scar tissue (or prevent it from forming), and to break up adhesions. Many chiropractors have been successful in shortening the course of patient treatment by using these types of treatments.  The health of these tissues is important because as with all connective tissue, fascia provides support, structure, and even protection for the musculoskeletal system.

Soft tissue can also become restricted due to overuse or inactivity, trauma, incorrect movement patterns, poor body alignment, or mental and/or emotional stress; resulting in pain, muscle tension, and diminished blood flow to a given area. The common complaint, “I’m just not very flexible” is taken a bit more seriously now than in years past. 

Practitioners that specialize in soft tissue manipulation utilize many different modalities providing a variety of treatment options.  Techniques can be as basic as foam rolling, or can involve manual therapy techniques such as advanced massage therapy, neuromuscular therapy, myotherapy, and rolfing.

Los Angeles based Movement Re-educator and Neuromuscular Therapist, Kerry O’Brien, describes the modality, neuromuscular therapy as “the releasing of trigger points with the intention of restoring muscles to their full potential i.e. the ability of a muscle to lengthen and contract fully.”  Rolfing, another modality, popular in the seventies and eighties, disappeared for a while and was considered too “brutal” for many clients.  But it is making a comeback.  "Rolfing," O’Brien explains, “is more concerned with encouraging structural and postural changes.”  

How to find a skilled Myo-therapist, Neuromuscular Therapist or Myofascial release practitioner?  “Don’t get too caught up in the technical names of these modalities,” cautions O’Brien, “it’s the skill of the practitioner that is the most important consideration when seeking relief from pain and subsequent movement re-education.” She recommends contacting the American Massage Therapist Association (AMTA) and instead of asking “how much is it?” Ask instead, about the credentials of the therapist.  The AMTA keeps a record of all continuing education courses completed and specializations of licensed therapists.

Training for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, swimmer Dara Torres, then 41 years old, explained the importance of soft tissue work to her success as an athlete; specifically, as an “older” athlete in her book Age is Just a Number:

          ”…Every day I made a point of doing something to aid my [workout] recovery.  Some days I’d visit a  chiropractor who worked his bald head into a frothy sweat as he buried his hand under my shoulder blade. On other days I’d book a massage….”

This was in addition to daily sessions with the professional “stretchers” she hired to keep her muscles and connective tissue healthy and to maximize her mobility and range of motion.  Her trainers actually used their feet to knead her flesh because they could apply more force this way.

”…they’d do this for 45 minutes, kneading lactic acid and small bits of scar tissue out of my muscles and the fascia that surrounds them.  Muscle fibers, as we all know, loosen up fairly readily, but the fascia around muscles is denser and far more difficult to break down…” 

While we may not be training for the Olympics, Dara’s example illustrates the benefits of soft tissue work that can be successfully applied to any body.

 © 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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1 comment:

  1. Jini, great article! Thanks for educating folks about fascia. This is cutting edge science! The Third Annual Fascia Research Congress will be held this year in Vancouver. Anyone can google them for the latest research.