Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Have you ever experienced the feeling of tight muscles after exercise? You may struggle to walk down the stairs or get uncomfortable sitting for too long because your muscles are cramping up and reducing your mobility. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and it happens as a result of your fascia.
Myofascial release is a type of manual therapy that relieves muscle and joint pain, improves mobility and flexibility, improves exercise performance, and is arguably the most effective way to recover post-workout. But what is myofascial release? Why is myofascial release effective? We’re going to cover all this and more, let’s get started!
What is your fascia?
Before we get into myofascial release, we first need to cover some of the basics of human anatomy. Your muscles and tissues are covered with a thin sheet-like substance called the fascia. The fascia essentially holds everything together - organs, blood vessels, bone, nerve fibers, muscles - everything, is contained because of the fascia. Check out the diagram below to see what this looks like.
Diagram 1 - The Fascia - Source: https://www.marquettept.com/2018/11/27/what-is-fascia-and-how-does-it-contribute-to-pain/
It may look like one sheet of connective tissue, but actually - it consists of multiple layers of tissue, each connected with hyaluronan - a liquid. This liquid lubricates the layers of fascia, so that the fascia can easily move, stretch, and absorb shock. This mucopolysaccharide liquid can change from fluid-like to gel-like. When hyaluronan becomes more gel-like, it causes the layers of fascia to become stiff and compressed.
What causes tight fascia?
Many people are aware of muscle pain caused by exercise, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to physical pain, exercise is not the only trigger, nor is muscle damage the only culprit. There are many causes of tight fascia, including:
● Working out intensely without proper recovery
● Sitting all day (sedentary lifestyle)
● Poor posture
● Stress and emotional trauma
● Engaging in repetitive movement
● Experiencing tissue trauma like injury
When one or more of these occur, your fascia gets tight and thick, drying the hyaluronan. The result is:
● Muscle pain
● Reduced range of motion
● Reduced mobility
● Reduced flexibility
In the short term, this can worsen DOMS, preventing you from bouncing back after exercise, and causing pain.
In the long term, the effects are more serious. When the fascia gets too tight and rigid - known as fascia adhesions - it compresses the muscles, causes extremely tight muscular knots, a reduced joint range of motion, and chronic pain.
As mentioned above, a sedentary lifestyle is a major trigger for tight fascia, because your muscles and hip flexors shorten as a result of sitting. The fascia fibers need to be mobile to stay lubricated and loose. Have you ever sat in a cold place and noticed you are stiff when you try and get up? That’s essentially what is happening to your fascia.
Another interesting cause of tight fascia is stress and emotional trauma. When we are stressed, our body goes through a number of changes to prepare us to fight or flee the stressor. This is an evolutionary adaptation known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode. In this state, a number of physiological and biochemical changes occur, including: elevated cortisol and adrenaline, blood vessels dilate, the heart rate increases, and more.
A lesser known physiological change that happens as part of the stress response is a thickening of the fascia. It does this to protect the vital organs in the body against the perceived stressor. Back in the days of hunter gatherers, you can imagine that this was extremely beneficial - your body is changing to guarantee the most favorable outcome against a predator. But nowadays, we aren’t fighting against predators. In reality, tight fascia just causes pain and mobility issues. Not ideal.
The takeaway point when it comes to fascia is this: the more mobile and fluid you are in your body, the looser, stretchier, and more lubricated your fascia is - and visa versa. Unfortunately, an estimated 85 percent of the population experiences myofascial pain caused by their lifestyle - which contributes to chronic joint and muscle pain, impacting an individual’s quality of life.
So what can you do about it?
What is myofascial release?
Now that we’ve covered everything about the fascia, we can now go onto the focus: what is myofascial release? And how can you release your fascia?
Myofascial release can be done in manual therapy, or during a myofascial release massage administered by a massage therapist. It involves applying varying pressure to the fascia to gently relieve the tightness and adhesions that contribute to muscle pain. However, it is important to note that myofascial massage is not the same as a regular massage.
During myofascial release therapy - whether done manually or with a therapist - the fascia is manipulated using a special technique. This technique involves rolling out the fascia, as you would roll out dough, to smooth out the bumps, adhesions, and wrinkles that have been created as a result of the fascia contorting and compressing.
This myofascial massage technique penetrates the deep fascia layers so the fascia can return to its natural elasticity and relieve pain. Standard massage or stretching only releases the superficial fascia layers so may reduce pain intermittently, it does not have lasting effects, as the deeper layers of fascia are still stiff.
What are the benefits of myofascial release?
Many studies have supported the use of self myofascial release massage for people experiencing joint or muscle pain or tightness. It’s one of the most common exercise recovery modalities for athletes for a reason!
As established in research, the main benefits of myofascial release include:
● Less joint and muscle pain
● Reduced DOMS
● Effective exercise recovery
● Alleviating trigger points and referral pain
● Increasing range of motion
● Improving flexibility and mobility
● Enhancing sports and exercise performance
● Boosting circulation - which helps to rid the body of toxins
A systematic review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports in 2015 examined nine independent studies that were conducted on self myofascial release. The researchers found that myofascial release significantly improved range of motion, muscle soreness and fatigue post-exercise.
Another study published in 2015 examined randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of research!) on myofascial release. The researchers concluded that myofascial release is “an emerging strategy with a solid evidence base and tremendous potential”.
The summary = it works.
How to do myofascial release
So now you’re convinced it works. But how can you release your fascia? One way is to get a myofascial release massage. However, they’re expensive, and not accessible to all people in all parts of the country. The most effective and easy way to do myofascial release is to get yourself a massage ball.
The 3L Fit Double Roller and Spiky Ball have been designed to help fascia pain. The spiky ball eliminates tightness by targeting the trigger points responsible. Here’s an example of how you can use it to relieve tight hamstrings:
● Sit on the floor and put the spiky ball under your hamstring
● With your hands on the floor, elevate your butt so that your weight is on your hamstring
● Roll up and down on the ball
● Do this for five or so minutes, depending on your level of tightness
When you roll up and down on the ball, the ball is targeting all aspects of your fascia, penetrating the deep fascia layers to relieve tightness. Do this after every workout, between sessions, after sitting for long periods of time, or if you are feeling stiff for whatever reason. The more you do this, the looser your fascia will be to ultimately eliminate pain and improve mobility.
We hope this article has helped you understand the role of the fascia and the benefits of myofascial release. Click here to get the 3L Fit Double Roller and Spiky Ball.