Musculoskeletal disorders are the leading cause of disability among working-age adults, accounting for 34 per cent of all workdays missed due to job-related injuries.
One of the most common of these disorders is myofascial pain syndrome (MPS), also known simply as muscle pain.
There are several treatment options available for those suffering from MPS, including medications, trigger point injections, and ultrasonography.
There is also a non-invasive option that has been found to be one of the most effective treatments for MPS: myofascial release therapy.
In this guide, we’ll explain what myofascial therapy is and how it works. We’ll also suggest some tools that can be used at home to perform myofascial therapy on yourself.
What is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?
Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic condition characterized by inflammation and pain in the fascia (the layer of connective tissue that surrounds the musculoskeletal system).
The pain experienced by those with MPS is caused by tender nodules of muscle fibre within the facial system called trigger points.
The muscles most often affected by myofascial pain are the ones used to maintain body posture (including the neck, pelvic girdle, shoulders, and upper trapezius).
Myofascial pain may also be accompanied by swelling of the joints.
What are Trigger Points and How Do They Develop?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes trigger points to develop.
Studies suggest there is a correlation between acute trauma (such as strains and sprains) or repetitive microtrauma (activities that place repetitive stress on a muscle or muscle group) and the formation of a trigger point.
Other possible causes of trigger points are lack of exercise, poor posture, sleep disturbances, and vitamin deficiencies.
There are two types of trigger points: active trigger points and latent trigger points.
- Active trigger points are typically located in the skeletal muscle and produce persistent pain in the affected muscle, even when the body is at rest.
- Latent trigger points are dormant in that they don’t produce pain when the body is at rest, but these types of trigger points may cause pain when pressure is applied to a certain area of the body. Latent trigger points are associated with muscle weakness and restricted movement.
It’s important to note that the area of the body in which a person experiences the pain of MPS may not necessarily be where the trigger point is located.
Trigger points can also produce pain in other parts of the body. This is known as referred pain, and it can manifest as a tension headache, tinnitus, reduced range of motion in the legs, and low back pain.
If you are experiencing referred pain, you may need the assistance of a professional to identify the locations of trigger points.
What is Myofascial Release Therapy?
Myofascial release therapy, also called myofascial trigger point therapy, is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of massage techniques intended to stretch and loosen the fascia.
Massage therapy, cupping, rolfing, structural integration, and instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) are a few examples of myofascial release techniques.
Myofascial release therapy is usually performed by an occupational therapist, registered massage therapist, chiropractor, osteopathic physician, or other health professionals who have undergone specialized training.
Myofascial therapy release sessions are conducted over the course of a few weeks or months, depending on the severity of the patient’s condition.
When performed by a skilled professional, myofascial release therapy has been shown to have positive effects such as:
- Improving blood flow
- Encouraging lymphatic drainage
- Eliminating pain
- Restoring motion to the musculoskeletal system
Myofascial release therapy is suitable for anyone suffering from soft tissue injuries and can be an effective alternative to surgery for those experiencing persistent back, hip, or shoulder pain.
This technique is also effective in treating carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, and temporomandibular joint disorder.
Self-Myofascial Release at Home
While myofascial release is most effective when administered by a trained health professional, there are documented benefits to performing myofascial release at home.
According to two research studies published in the International Journal of Sports Physical therapy and the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy, performing myofascial release on oneself can help with the following:
- Increase mobility and range of motion
- Reduce the severity of post-workout soreness (also known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS)
- Enhances workout performance
- May even improve vascular and parasympathetic nervous system function.
There are many tools available that are designed to facilitate self-myofascial release. These tools help break up constricted fascia, reduce and restore flexibility to the muscles.
Below, we’ll take a look at four of the most popular myofascial release tools for at-home massage: foam rollers, massage stick rollers, trigger point balls, and massage canes.
Keep in mind that these tools are not meant to replace professional treatment. If you’ve been experiencing constant pain for longer than two weeks or your pain is getting worse, consult with your physician to rule out a more serious issue.
Foam rollers are the most popular tool for self-myofascial release.
These are available in a range of shapes, sizes and textures, but the most important factor in choosing the right roller for myofascial release is the density of the foam.
Generally, the higher the density, the deeper and more intense the massage.
For more information on how a foam roller works see our page on the best foam rollers.
Massage Stick roller
A massage stick roller is a smaller type of foam roller that features ergonomic handles. Massage stick rollers are ideal for targeting smaller areas of the body, such as the forearms, calves, and feet.
They range in length from 12 inches to 18 inches and come in various densities.
Trigger Point Massage Canes
A trigger point wand is a curved massage stick that resembles a hook.
This type of self-massage tool is useful for performing myofascial release on difficult-to-reach areas of the body, such as the back or neck.
Trigger Point Therapy Massage Balls
A trigger ball is a small, portable, and versatile device that can be used to massage trigger points in the hands and feet.
A trigger point ball is also useful for targeting problem areas of the body like the neck.
While you can use a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball for myofascial release, you can also get specialised massage balls which can be more effective in relieving pain and restoring flexibility to tight muscles.
For more information see our page on the best massage balls for myofascial release.
Self-Myofascial Release: How to Release a Trigger Point
Once you’ve got your chosen myofascial release tool, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
- Increase pressure gradually. Resist the temptation to use more pressure than is necessary when first starting out with self-myofascial release. Instead, apply even pressure to the trigger point until you feel a burning sensation. This sensation is an indication that a chemical release is occurring.
- If you feel unbearable pain, stop. Some discomfort or pain is normal when performing myofascial release, but you shouldn’t feel any sharp pains. If you do feel pain, you may be pressing against a nerve. The more you perform myofascial release the more you’ll know which is the ‘right’ type of pain.
- Be patient. Self-myofascial release isn’t a magic bullet. Consistency is necessary to realize the full benefits of this treatment. Be sure to track your progress by noting any improvements in terms of pain, inflammation, and range of motion.
Myofascial release therapy is not a cure for MPS, but it can be effective in reducing the muscle tenderness associated with this musculoskeletal disorder and restoring movement to the affected muscle structures.
If you’re suffering from short-term or chronic muscle pain and want to avoid surgical treatment, consider this alternative treatment for myofascial pain.
If you want to begin self-myofascial release and don’t know where to start, check out our best myofascial release tools page to find the right tool to meet your needs.