Foam Rolling and Self Myofascial Release — Does it work?!?
What is fascia?
If we look at the big picture, the 10,000 foot view of what fascia is, it begins in the embryo in development - all 700 trillion cells have to be hooked together somehow - so our body came up with fascia (a connective tissue, membranous fibrous stuff) that hold every thing together weaving from the skin down and through the organ systems.
It can be effected by movement or LACK of movement for that matter. Everything that we do with our bodies effects the way the fascia moves and behaves.
Sitting for longer periods of time for instance, will elongate the tissue of your tush and lower back due to its position under the weight of your body. Our fascia adapts to the needs and demands of the body and the forces put on it.
It is also very nerve rich and there are several layers that each have a slightly different make up from one another. The superficial facia is a fatty layer under the skin while the deep layer (called the fascia profunda) is thick like duct tape and runs like a river through different muscle groups and forms long lines through the body (posterior chain, anterior chain etc).
There are other types of fascia between these fascial layers that sort of sew
it all together, but they are all very rich in nervous tissue especially the fatty layer!
The fascia is like a highway to all of the other systems in the body. So we are forced through this fascial connection, to consider all the other systems that might be involved. This Includes the lymphatic system and the vascular system as the arteries and veins have to penetrate through the fascia to get from one place to another
How long does fascial work last and how much should I do?
The answer to this is one of those…. Weeellll, it’s different for each person and their body’s needs. It also depends largely on how well we support the nervous system and promote parasympathetic breath patterns and lifestyle throughout the day.
Things we do know are the fact that movement reduces tissue thickness and improves force production of that tissue so that we can be more MOBILE and have more supple tissues.
Mobility is like a vital sign. Holding a significant level of importance in ones health and well being. Once mobility is lost, so is a large chunk of independence.
If a person is having trouble moving because they are in pain and could then use a tool, for even just a few minutes, to free up enough tissue to relieve some of that pain…. That would at least allow them to experience movement in some way, that one movement would then allow for other movement and that movement allows a third movement and so on. Allowing one go gain some amount of freedom each day. Tissue change takes time, it generally doesn’t happen overnight. The tool may be the way we accomplish “get up and go”.
So when we ask how long does it last… for some it may be something that has to be done often, just like brushing your teeth. It isn’t a one and does thing, so we may not be able to say how long it lasts or how much it take as we all have different levels of trauma and durations of poor movement patterns.
We shouldn’t look at these tools like a bandaid covering a wound but that we are working on wounds down deep inside from old injuries or traumas or long term poor movement patterns or postures. All of these things effect your fascial system and create major shifts in how we use or cause wear and tear on the joints.
What are we “breaking up or releasing”? What is actually happening?
New research of myofascial release describes it in a way that says we are likely not creating morphological changes in the fascia itself, but rather effecting fluids and fibers depending on the type of pressure you’re pushing into those tissues. We know by moving fluid, we are affecting cellular nutrition and helping with increased profusion to cells. By affecting thousands of sensory nerve endings that are embedded in these tissues creates this experience of “muscle release” which is often more of a proprioceptive or enteroceptive relayed experience. Which can be pleasant and provide relief. This sensation happens just because something in the body feels different because it has been contacted by skillful touch or tools so we get feedback from the sensory neurons that are gong to the limbic system (in the brain) or to the central motor cortex depending on the kind of touch that is being applied.
Softer tools are less likely to overly excite the tissue which will generally bring on a bracing respond and further muscle tensioning. Softer tools can often turn off this bracing response since it is less threatening to the body and allow deeper access the fascial tissues. Most of us spend a lot of time in a heightened stress state with the autonomic nervous system kind of wound up, nearing flight or flight status for a good chunk of our day. The softer tools or softer touch can help get into more of a parasympathetic state.
What about the knots and trigger points?
There is actually a good amount of debate on the description or a trigger point, so we can argue all day on this but, here is my take on it. Knots are hypertonic areas of a muscle, or a region within the muscle, that the nervous system decided should be tight or in a shortened position. While these areas or muscle fascicles are in a shortened, immobile position the other fibers and fascicles around it are still likely moving normally. This is bound to cause s
ome amount of friction leading to some unhappy muscles because of the lack of efficiency and poor slide and glide. For those muscles that are sort of stuck in this shortened position, there is also fascia there, which will be restricted and compressed as well. This restriction then limits good fluid
exchange which causes cellular debris and waste products to build up (creating an acidic environment) in that area. So when we touch that spot, it will often feel like a burning or stinging sensation due to the lack of ability to flush the area and all the sensory neurons that are now being exposed to this overly acidic environment.
Pressure massage can be applied slowly and softly to the region and tissues surrounding it near it to “trick” the muscle spindle into calming down and letting go of the knot or tension point. Doing a calming practice (like deep breathing or mindfulness) during this time can also help results happen faster and then after the spindle decides it is safe to let go, the tissue then needs to be flushed of all that debris by manipulating the tissue, like squeezing out a sponge to get out all the cellular debris.
Simply put, trigger point in the muscle is a local compensation of the tissue - for example: If you have left knee pain, you will likely spend more time walking and moving and using the right knee more heavily to avoid the left knee. Our muscles, with a trigger point in them, can act the same in this way. A muscle that stays overly active or overly excited will overly recruit muscles around that trigger point to help with the job which leads to more friction, debris and irritation.
BIG Take Aways
Harder is not better. Just because a tool is harder and stiffer does not mean that it is going to work better for your body.
Understanding that less can be more. The thought of more is better can often get us into trouble as we may just blow past our body’s warning signals.
Using controlled breathing while using tools (or receiving massage) is important to be able to activate parasympathetic system. The nervous system must “feel safe” to fully let go and then to allow us to keep those results rather than just tightening back up before the day is over.
Long hold stretching is known to weaken force production or force output! So doing static hold stretching prior to exercise is not always a good idea even though we may feel an improved ROM.
Rolling and Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, does not seem to decrease this output but we still reap the benefits of seeing the improved ROM.
In a standing position, try to touch your chin to your chest (without abdominal and trunk flexion).
How far did you make it? How hard did it feel?
Now take a ball, tennis or lacrosse or any mobility ball you may have and place it under the sole of the foot. Roll it around for a minute or 2. Across the foot side to side and then from the heel to the toes. After your 2 minutes, try your chin to chest again. Does it go further, easier, feel different. If the answer was yes, you are likely limited in mobility throughout the posterior fascia.
ITS ALL CONNECTED!! Fun right?!