What is Myofascial Release?

People often ask me to explain Myofascial Release Therapy and I give a quick definition, but always feel there is so much more to say. So here is the ‘long version’ of MFR, what it is, how it works and how I came to study it.

MFR is a soft tissue therapy that works on the fascial or connective tissue. This tissue surrounds every cell in the body and therefore runs through all muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones allowing them to slide and glide over and around each other. It protects and stabilizes organs and bones and is responsible for our sense of proprioception or, in other words, our feeling of ‘where we are in space’. The entire fascial system is interconnected, so any influence on one area has an effect on the rest of the body. This is similar to a bed sheet- when one corner is pulled, the ripples can be seen across the rest of the bed.

Tissue tightens in response to any physical and/or emotional trauma and often forms adhesions which the body is unable to release. This may be due to various causes such as repetitive strain, dehydration, compensation issues or overwork. As the tissue holds a cellular memory of all trauma, not only physical issues but unresolved emotion can cause tightening of tissues and eventual soreness, lack of flexibility and lameness/ gait anomalies. The fascia is made up primarily of collagen, elastin and a thick viscous fluid called ground substance which should remain soft and pliable but becomes tight and hard under traumatic conditions. Most importantly, fascia can exert up to 2000 lbs. of pressure per square inch on surrounding structures. This means that restricted tissue can cause bones to misalign, tendons to rupture, intense nerve pain, oedema by blocking the lymphatic flow and various other problems for the body.

MFR is a gentle, hands on therapy that works 3 dimensionally to encourage fascial tissue to release, unwind, and remodel. It uses gentle pressure and a piezoelectric, or warming effect, to sink in, relax and stretch damaged tissue. Over a relatively short period of time MFR can restore practically full range of motion and flexibility as well as effectively alleviating pain by relieving tissue pressure on nerve endings. Emotional releases are often experienced as well, allowing patients (both equine and human) to let go of past traumas and to feel lighter, happier and more relaxed. The tissue releases also enable any skeletal mobilizations necessary to be made gently and easily.

Two to three treatments will usually resolve most soft tissue problems in horses, providing there is no underlying cause (such as arthritis, hoof imbalances, poorly fitting saddles etc). Patients can feel a bit wobbly as restrictions are released and muscles that may have been weak and constrained are called back into use. They may also experience short emotional ‘highs’ or ‘lows’ as they process releases and these are an important part of the recovery process. Once horses have settled into their new feeling of proprioception, consistent work is important as little used muscles will require stretching and strengthening. Therefore, physical improvement from MFR can continue over several weeks or even months as increased range of movement allows for muscular strengthening and development.

I came across this relatively little- known therapy after a wrist dislocation and fractures that required surgery and the insertion of a plate. Six weeks after removal of the cast I still had minimal wrist movement in spite of many physiotherapy, massage and acupuncture sessions. These treatments were causing intense pain but did not seem to improve my wrist movement. As I also played the violin semi-professionally and at that stage couldn’t even hold the instrument, it was very important not only to regain some but full range of motion.

A friend suggested that I try MFR, and although sceptical, I was desperate enough to give it a try. After 2 sessions I was able to rotate my wrist 180 degrees and more importantly, to hold the violin! After 4 sessions I was playing again and in 6 sessions was able to play as I had before the accident.

Needless to say, I was extremely impressed by the results and realised that here was a therapy that could be of tremendous benefit not only to my eventers but to all horses. After doing some research I found that there were courses offered in England on the John Barnes method of MFR for equines.

This started a 3 year journey during which I became an advanced equine MFR practitioner. As most of my human clients also wanted/needed some work too, I qualified as a human massage and MFR practitioner in April, 2016.

I can only say that the results of MFR have far exceeded my expectations. Many times clients have brought horses with long-term undiagnosed lameness, x rays and mri scans having provided no conclusive diagnosis. In most cases 2-3 sessions of MFR has removed the fascial restrictions causing the pain and dysfunction and/or given the vet a clear indication of the actual problem area by removing compensation tissue restrictions.

My long competitive Eventing career also helps me to spot possible underlying causes such as hoof imbalances, poor saddle fit, an unbalanced rider, etc, and often once these causes are removed and tissue restrictions are released by MFR, the problem is solved.

I am regularly asked how often a horse should be treated, and this depends entirely on the horses’ workload and the quality of his management. As can be seen from the photos on this page, the physical demand on sports horses is varied and intense. After the initial sessions which remove any major restrictions, I generally suggest that after every 2-3 events it’s useful to have a checkup. Every competition horse (and rider!) will experience some micro-tears in their soft tissue and minor skeletal misalignments both in training and competition. The sooner restrictions are released the less likely they are to cause compensation issues and injuries. For some horses this could be once every 4 to 6 weeks and for others every 4 to 6 months. Fairly regular treatments seem to keep patients loose, supple, balanced and emotionally stable. You can’t ask for one type of treatment to do much more!