Toddler receiving myofascial release

Myofascial Release

Myofascial Release (MFR) is a form of bodywork that works to release tension in the facia, the thin layer of connective tissue surrounding the body’s muscles and organs, due to trauma and inflammation. MFR treatment aims to reduce pain and promote strength, flexibility and body alignment.

Fascia is a fibrous tissue made up of collagen and other proteins. It’s the nearly-translucent material visible between the muscle and skin found when one eats a piece of chicken. In the human body, this matrix of interconnected tissue supports our bones, tendons and muscles, surrounding all structures. MFR practitioners believe that trauma, physical and emotional, affects the chemical composition of fascia and can cause stiffness and contractions that lead to physical impairment and poor daily functioning. In MFR sessions, a practitioner applies targeted touch to affected areas, stimulating fascial release through heat and pressure.

The foundations of MFR were built on the work of Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy, who believed the body can be manipulated to activate its own healing mechanisms. Today’s MFR techniques were developed primarily by osteopath Robert Ward and physical therapist John Barnes. Most MFR practitioners have advanced training in massage therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic, and/or osteopathy.

Possible Uses

As a complex, interconnected tissue system, healing of fascia can impact the body far from the site of MFR manipulation. Many practitioners have noted that MFR quickly delivers improvements throughout the central nervous system. Chiropractors and physical therapists have noted children with cerebral palsy respond well to MFR, reporting reduction in seizures and improvements in speech, coordination, and posture.

After studying with John Barnes, PT, an experienced teacher of MFR, physical therapist Diane Weis, PT, describes her work using MFR on a child with cerebral palsy. She specifically remarks on how MFR produced a complex coordinated response, with progress not limited to the treatment area: 

“I am currently treating a four-year-old child with cerebral palsy, who moves his entire body in total patterns of either flexion or extension. He shows the classic “blocks” to movement at both the shoulder and pelvic girdles. One day I was working on sacral mobility…. My patient was lying prone and up on elbows. As I worked, his very restricted sacrum began to have some mobility and rotationally between the ilia.

I then began to introduce a slight lateral weight shift through the pelvis with my hand still on the sacrum, and I increased the range of the weight shift (which I could do because the tissue mobility now existed to allow it), and this child, who previously moved his legs and pelvis as a unit, actively flexed one leg up while the other remained extended, as in an amphibian response. His trunk and head aligned appropriately with the weight shift, and the tone in the rest of his body, which usually increased when he attempted any active movement, did not.

I had not specifically worked on truncal elongation/ shortening or righting reactions, or lower extremity separation. Yet all three of those very desirable actions happened by first getting the sacral mobility.”

MFR can facilitate relief for children suffering from a variety of problems impacting their central nervous systems. According to the Myofascial Therapy Center for Health and Healing in Campbell, California, “Children with ADD, ADHD, or LD may have myofascial restrictions elsewhere in the body which may impact the central nervous system. The earlier the restriction is addressed, the easier and more rapid the release.”

How It Works

MFR practitioners typically apply pressure to the area of connective tissue they identify as contracted or restricted. They carefully monitor the patient’s physical response and adjust the pressure and location accordingly. The sustained touch activates a chemical response that sends anti-inflammatory agents to the area, promoting natural healing that restores mobility and sensation.

In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Ming Chew, PT, says, “The difference between what I do and [massage therapists] do is I specifically look to break up adhesions and soften up scar tissues and initiate non-firing nerves to start firing again.”

The pressure applied can range from gentle to intense and it’s not uncommon for patients to feel some discomfort during and after sessions, though it’s usually short-lived. Practitioners use their fingers, knuckles and elbows as well as tools such as massage balls and foam rollers. Most practitioners also teach patients at-home exercises as part of their treatment plan. This video from Yoga Journal illustrates some popular at-home MFR techniques.

Challenges

Despite its visibility and obvious function in the body, fascia is curiously understudied in medical research, leading to few studies that support the effectiveness of MFR. This article from the website Io9 is an extensive overview of the state of fascia research and indicates that scientists and alternative medicine practitioners may be taking steps to rectify the lack of research:

“Most scientists,” says Wallace Sampson, alternative medicine skeptic and professor emeritus at Stanford University, “even those wary of alternative therapies, admit that the field of fascia research is a field of neglect, and remains sorely under-investigated.”

This 2015 study, however, published by the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, showed that fibroblasts, the fascial cells that produce anti-inflammatory chemicals, responded positively to MFR techniques.

Things to Consider

With MFR training not regulated by a licensing board, it is very important to feel comfortable with the experience level and specialization of a practitioner. Many MFR practitioners have training in complementary and related therapies, such as trigger-point therapy and cranio-sacral therapy. Based on this, it may be beneficial to research other bodywork modalities that can help your child’s condition and discuss how to incorporate them into your MFR treatment plan.