Myofascial Release (MFR) is a term used to describe a variety of techniques which manipulate the soft tissues in the body (muscles and fascia).
Many massage therapists and other body workers are trained in this field of manual therapy. However, with a little knowledge and the help of myofascial ‘tools’, you can effectively use these techniques at home – either as regular self-maintenance for your body or alongside treatments from a therapist.
My experience & training with self myofascial release
I have learned self-myofascial release from my yoga teacher, Tiffany Cruikshank, initially in a workshop in the spring of 2014 using just tennis balls. I was amazed at the effectiveness: simple techniques with immediate results. I spent the next few years continuing this exploration, purchased a few other tools and began holding Yin Yoga and Myofascial Release workshops in 2015. As my students also reported their positive experience of this work, I now include a little self MFR work in most of my Yin Yoga classes.
In September 2016, I travelled to the States to study a week long Chinese Medicine & Myofascial Release module with my teacher. This training has provided me with the latest knowledge in the research of fascia (relative to yoga practitioners) whilst my knowledge of MFR applications has increased ten fold.
What is Fascia?
I have written a separate, complementary article – Understanding Fascia – a guide to your body’s connective tissue – so I do recommend that you read this in conjunction with this post in order to familiarise yourself with the anatomical side of fascia and absorb more in depth information on dysfunction. I particularly recommend reading this article first, especially if you are a newcomer to working with self myofascial release. In doing so, you’ll know why and when to reach for your myofascial tools for safe and effective self ‘treatment’.
The goals of myofascial release
- To restore range of motion to individual muscles and therefore, throughout the line of fascia. This helps to unravel the effects of poor posture.
- To release trigger points (areas of congestion in a muscle – sometimes felt as ‘knots’, that cause the surrounding muscle fibres to become taut, referring pain to other areas of the body.
- To relieve pain, discomfort and pressure on surrounding blood vessels and nerves.
- To restore neuromuscular connections (the free flow of neurons via the information highway within the fascia).
The importance of hydration
By simply moving our bodies more frequently and sitting less, we help to hydrate the deep fascia. Do you ever notice that your body is more stiff in the morning upon getting out of bed? This is due to lack of movement overnight – even during our sleeping hours, the layers of fascia can become bound up – so getting out of bed and taking a nice stretch as you yawn helps to ‘melt’ away the fuzzed up fascia that has formed overnight.
Dehydration, on the other hand, is bad news for our fascia (as well as our overall health). When the body lacks water, the ground substance (the fluid system that is part of fascia) decreases and this paves the way for the adhesion between the tissues in the body as the collagen fibres lose their elasticity.
Drinking sufficient water on a daily basis is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health and if you are recovering from injury, damage or irritation to your deep fascia, you will greatly support your recovery by staying hydrated.
Self myofascial Release – important guidelines
First and foremost – self MFR should be a journey of self study and self exploration. What works for one person may be inappropriate or even injurious for another. I find that my body responds differently from one day to the next too – so it’s crucial to ALWAYS listen to your body each and every time. Be mindful and practice non-violence towards yourself. Here are general guidelines, however if you are under the care of a healthcare practitioner for any illness, injury or medical condition, please consult them in the first instance and note that the following does not constitute or replace any medical advice:
- Applying pressure directly to bony areas that are not covered with soft tissue e.g. your kneecaps, collar bones, the bony part of your elbow.
- Working directly on a replacement joint (the surrounding tissue is ok).
- Avoid areas that have metal plates inserted following bone fractures or breaks.
- Your trachea (windpipe).
- Nerves: it’s not uncommon to hit a nerve – which may cause sensations of numbness, tingling or burning – if this happens, simply move the myofascial tool a few millimetres from the spot you are working with to bypass the nerve.
- Working on an area that is visibly swollen; but it’s ok to treat the surrounding tissue.
- Bruises, broken skin, varicose veins.
- Osteoporosis – avoid working on or near any bones.
- Sites of cancer (please refer to precautionary note above in italic font).
- During pregnancy – some modifications are available for certain areas of the body e.g. seated or using a wall. Avoid all abdominal work or techniques that involve lying prone or supine.
- Working on an area that is still sore from a massage/treatment/myofascial release – allow times for your tissues to recover otherwise further irritation or inflammation can occur.
I’m sharing my favourite with you at the top of this list. However, it’s important to use a tool that works for you. If in doubt, start with the humble tennis ball and experiment from there!
Rad Rounds: the ultimate in my opinion! These balls are made from silicon and have a great, grippy texture which allows for a wider use of techniques e.g. using them against the wall. The green ball is firm, but has a little ‘give’. It’s a bit smaller than a tennis ball. The blue ball is smaller and firmer. If you order these balls from https://www.physioparts.co.uk/rad-rounds – a UK stockist – you will also receive a very small black ball in the pack which, at the time of writing, is not included in packs that are ordered from Amazon. With these three, you can reach all body parts including tiny muscles. Their applications are endless. Be sure to order 2x packs for bi-lateral work.
- A good all rounder for most body parts & MFR techniques.
- As they have a bit of ‘give’ in them, it’s easier to relax muscles than when using a solid, harder ball which makes them a good introductory tool for beginners to myofascial release.
- They are inexpensive & portable.
- Their non-grip surface means that they can slip away from you easily in some techniques and they are not the best option when using a wall.
- They are one size (although I did find some ‘baby’ ones in a pet shop!)
- Great for feet, not much else.
- Inexpensive and easy to source.
- Too hard for most other body parts
- Slightly smaller than tennis ball & made of solid rubber so they are more brutal than the tennis ball!
- Good for musclebound body types.
- Grippy rubber surface has the advantage over the tennis ball in that it grips the skin & underlying tissues allowing for more effective release in methods such as pin & stretch or rolling/cross fibre.
- For the average body (not overly muscle bound) these balls may be too hard
Specialised massage therapy / myofascial / trigger point balls
There are many branded products out there specificially designed for myofascial work. There are too many to list, as you will find out for yourself if you type ‘myofascial’ or ‘trigger point’ ball into a search engine.
However, since receiving two sets of Rad Rounds on my Myofascial Release teacher training, my days of testing out new tools, for the time being, are over!
These are usually very dense and come in a variety of lengths. Some are smooth, others ridged, others bumpy (like soft spikes).
- They work best on large muscle groups i.e. calves, hamstrings, quads & back muscles.
- They can also be used for core work exercises.
- They are bulky and not easily transportable.
- Definitely not as versatile as using balls for getting in the nooks and crannies!
- Also, it is often necessary to support yourself in compromising positions to roll over them (which can create tension in shoulders or arms). I find them a bit brutal to be honest but they do work for some people!
My next post in this series, to be published soon, will guide you through techniques and how to work with different areas of your body. You may also be interested in my series of Yin and Myofascial Release workshops – these are ongoing so please do check back regularly or sign up for my newsletter.