Myofascial release in its most generalized use refers to anything that applies a constant, steady pressure on restricted fascia tissue. Fascia is a type of connective tissue that can surround many structures in the body, binding some together, while allowing others to move smoothly over each other. Muscle fascia refers to the dense layers of connective tissue that offer a system of support and protection. It bundles multiple muscle fibers, keeping them resilient and working in communion, dividing specific muscles or groups of muscles.
Our lifestyles, posture, and repetitious motions imperfect as they are cause dysfunction in the connective tissue. This results in a trauma to the body (perceived or real) that sets off inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s response to pain, which causes the body to feel protective of itself. Such a protective reaction incites muscles spasms, working overtime to keep the injured area from being moved or impacted.
Spasms lead to adhesions when the muscle tissue knots up, first in the spasming muscle then the surrounding muscles that are being pulled into the motion of the initial spasms. Because of the altered movement happening in the body as muscles are spasming, we actually gain new neuromuscular responses: compensation patterns. Our bodies are incredible at finding new paths of motion that will leave the injured area alone. But that, in turn leads to imbalances because our natural biomechanical movements are altered.
I’m describing what is called the Cumulative Injury Cycle, something I’m sure that you have experienced before. You probably remember the last time your neck and shoulders or your back or a leg muscle seized up on you, whether you remember the precipitating movement or not. The pain that you feel in response, as well as the days of finding a million different ways to sit, stand, sleep or walk are indicators that your body is seeking another, easier way to deal. A release.
Specifically, we’re going to talk about self myofascial release done with a foam roller or a massage ball. These instruments are used, much like a massage therapists hands, to apply enough force to the knotted areas of your muscle tissue to help realign fascia and point muscles back into their optimal arrangements.
If you’ve worked with me long, I’m sure I’ve asked you to use a foam roller or to find time to lie on top of a ball. These tools have been paramount to my own healing and daily function. Muscles spasms result from so many of our daily activities, whether working out, sitting or sleeping in one position for too long. The reasons are unlimited. For this reason, I will often advocate as much or even more significance to self-myofascial release than training itself. I think it is also important to have an incredible massage therapist that you are comfortable working with (we can all only do so much for our own bodies). It may be important to work with a more specialized occupational therapist (or other professional) whose main area of interest is myofascial release.
What are you looking for when you use a foam roller or massage ball? Just like getting a deep tissue massage, you want to find tender areas—knots—where your muscle tissue is overactive. This hypertonicity is what is pulling your body out of its natural alignment and causing you pain or discomfort. In each area that you focus on, you will align your body to target specific muscles or muscle groups. You’ll rest on the roller or ball, using proper postural alignment and taking care to keep your core engaged appropriately (you want maintain spinal alignment while you are decreasing muscle knots and increasing mobility…not doing so could injure your spinal alignment).
In each area that you target, spend at least 20-30 seconds putting as much pressure as you can tolerate into a tender area. This will gradually increase the signal that the area can relax, decrease the tension in the knotted muscle and help the fascia to realign. In every muscle group that is targeted you will find multiple adhesions (knots) and you want to take the time that you can to slowly work along the line of that muscle and find other areas of tension.
I, myself, might work on a foam roller or ball anywhere from a minute or two working on a very specific knot if I’m in a crunch during the day. Or I might take an hour to hour-and-a-half to concentrate throughout my body. The more injuries that we incur, the older that we get, the longer that we spend time in one position, the more fatigued we are—all of these things cause us to need more time spent caring for our physical need of myofascial release.
In the following post I’ll show you many ways that you can target major areas of the body that will be longing for your attention!