Whether you spend more of your spare time lounging or hitting the gym, you’re probably no stranger to the occasional sore muscle. But if you’ve started to notice more frequent discomfort or tightness, it may be a specific type of ailment called myofascial pain. This type of tenderness often comes from tight and/or overworked muscles, and requires some fancy stretching, called myofascial release, to alleviate the soreness. What is myofascial release, and how can you do it at home? We spoke with expert Kelsey Decker, a certified personal trainer at StretchLab, to find out.
What is myofascial tissue and why does it get tight?
Myofascial tissue, also called fascia, is the soft connective tissue that surrounds and supports your muscles and joints. It holds all your muscles, organs, and bones in place, but is as sensitive as it is strong. “This tissue has nerve sensors that detect pressure, send a response to the brain, and send the release of tension back to the muscle fascia,” Decker says.
Normally, fascia is stretchy and moves fluidly when you do. But it can thicken and tighten around your muscles when stressed, leading to uncomfortable or even painful knots. This can happen when you don’t move enough day to day, or if you move too much—for example, if you overtrain a muscle group. Trauma, like from an injury or surgery, can also lead to myofascial pain.
What is myofascial release good for?
Myofascial pain will usually have a more centralized “trigger point” that flares up during activity or when touched. Myofascial release is when you relieve tension in these points, typically through some form of massage. Depending on how severe the tightness is, you may be able to identify the trigger points by pressing your fingers down the length of your muscles to feel where the fascia is stiff and knotty instead of smooth and elastic. If you’re not sure, a visit to a massage or physical therapist isn’t a bad idea. These areas are not always where you are feeling pain, so a trained therapist can be useful to identify and treat the myofascial stress.
Regular (emphasis on the word “regular” here) myofascial release can benefit hardcore gym rats and couch potatoes alike, by improving range of motion and flexibility, reducing soreness, expediting muscle recovery, and improving circulation, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Myofascial release could also help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or the dreaded post-workout aching you can get after exercising for the first time in a while or after a particularly intense day at the gym. There are a few factors believed to cause DOMS, one of which is tight or damaged fascia. Thus, some believe myofascial release can help alleviate some of this soreness.
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Is foam rolling a form of myofascial release?
Foam rolling is one of the easiest and most popular ways to give yourself a myofascial massage. Often called “self-myofascial rolling,” foam rolling can relieve tense and stressed muscles, and give many of the same benefits of a hands-on myofascial massage.
“[Start] slow and with light pressure,” Decker says. “This can be an uncomfortable sensation for beginners or when working with tight areas.” Her advice is to take one muscle group at a time, first by rolling the entire length of the muscle—for example, the quads, from hip to just above the knee: “Once you find a tight area, pause and breathe through the tension to allow the muscle to relax. Roll through the quad several more times until another tight spot is felt. Spend about five minutes max with each muscle group.”
The larger and less dense your foam roller is, the gentler the massage will be. You can purchase denser, textured rollers for a more targeted massage. “When looking for the right foam roller, harder rollers with more notches are not always better,” Decker says. “Pain is not the name of the game here. Allowing your body to experience the release from tension can be uncomfortable enough, so adding additional pressure points can do more harm than good. Look for a size or style that feels and works best for your body.”
For a foam roller that’s long enough to use for your full body and not too dense, try the LuxFit Premium High Density Foam Roller. In our tests, we found this simple black foam cylinder eased out muscles while being long enough to massage big areas, such as the upper back.
What are other methods of myofascial release?
For those who either don’t like foam rolling or find it challenging to do, other ways to release tight fascia include heat therapy using a heating pad or by taking warm showers or baths, gentle stretching such as yoga, at-home massage, professional massage therapy, or acupuncture.
If you’re massaging the area at home, either with a YouTube tutorial or instructions from your therapist, Decker recommends a couple of tools: a massage gun to work into the muscles more deeply (our favorite, hands down, is the Therabody Theragun Elite) or a massage stick to get the most out of your session, even in those hard-to-reach places.
How can you prevent tight fascia in the first place?
To keep your fascia from tensing up to begin with, you should move and stretch regularly. Moving too little can cause you to lose imperative strength and flexibility, resulting in fascial tightness or trigger points. Sitting too much can also reduce blood flow to your muscles, resulting in tight fascia. Performing muscle-strengthening activities and stretching regularly can help keep your fascia (and your muscles) strong, limber, and healthy.
Tight fascia is particularly common in the neck, shoulders, and back from hunching over computers and phones. To combat myofascial pain in these areas, you can focus on your posture. Try to straighten your back and neck while standing or sitting, and adjust your technology when you can so it’s at eye-level. You may also want to take breaks for a quick walk or stretch session when sitting for long periods of time. You can also exercise for better posture. Strengthening your back and core muscles, and stretching your chest and hips, can improve your slouching.
Is myofascial release safe for everyone?
Myofascial release in its many forms is safe for most people. However, if you are on blood thinners, suspect (or know) you have a fractured bone, or have a condition affecting your veins, consult with your doctor before trying any massage techniques.
Myofascial release, either from a physical therapist or a self-massage session, causes initial discomfort, but your muscles should feel more relaxed after and any pain should start to subside. Though it will feel uncomfortable, myofascial release should never be painful. If you feel sharp, shooting pain, stop and contact your doctor.
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