The type of muscle tissue with which most people are familiar is skeletal muscle attached to bones. Skeletal muscle is referred to as “voluntary” muscle tissue because it is consciously controlled. It also makes up about 40 percent of one’s bodyweight (if we’re talking about non-overweight and non-obese individuals).
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All of this bone and muscle is connected, interconnected, covered, perforated, and laced by dense, fibrous, tough, yet flexible tissues made of collagen called ligaments, tendons, aponeuroses, and fascia (or myofascia).
Whereas ligaments join bone to bone and tendons join skeletal muscle to bone, fascia’s job is to surround muscles, groups of muscles, blood vessels, and nerve; for some structures, it suspends and holds them in place and for others reduces friction so that they slide smoothly over each other.
Inflammatory responses (e.g., hotness, redness, swelling, and fluid accumulation) to tissue damage – like a bodily trauma such as a surgical procedure – cause myofascial restrictions. Blood vessels dilate (i.e., widen) as white blood cells collect due to an attraction to the leaking debris from the ruptured cells and capillaries. This swelling applies pressure to nerve endings and consequently movement becomes uncomfortable. Traumatized fascia can deliver stiffness, headaches, muscle spasms, tingling sensations, and chronic body pains. Trauma, therefore, can cause a loss of pliability that result in painful myofascial restrictions which need to be released.
It was for a long time, and to some people’s minds still is, considered good practice to stretch before vigorous physical activity. Regardless of the lack of importance of a pre-workout stretch to either cardiovascular or strength training sessions, its principal effect pre- or post-workout is upon ligaments and tendons.
Similarly, warming up via some light activity can raise one’s respiratory rate, increase blood flow throughout the entire body, and elevate core temperature. The warm up appropriately loosens dormant muscles, reduces tightness in all soft tissues not engorged with blood, and increases blood flow into and out of muscles. However, inflammation means the tissue is already too engorged!
Thus, conventional stretching and other activity may not provide enough, if any, myofascial release and may exacerbate the problem. Other “stretching” approaches to soft tissue treatment are needed.
The intent of myofascial release is to ease persistent muscular contractions, break down scars, improve circulation and increase fluid drainage, and ultimately return the tissue to a more relaxed and softer condition so that it can stretch appropriately and move unrestricted. Myofascial release is applied through techniques ranging from slow, brief, gentle massaging near the surface of the skin to extended, deep tissue work (also known as direct myofascial release) by a trained therapist with strong hands, knuckles, and elbows applying significant pressure.
It’s also possible to apply techniques, albeit less gratifying and comprehensive, to oneself for relief. The molded foam roller is a common piece of equipment able to deliver some relief. Foam rollers apply the concept of “autogenic inhibition,” meaning it
Improves soft tissue extensibility (i.e., muscles’ ability to be stretched), thus relaxing the muscle (i.e., capitalizing on the elasticity or the muscles’ ability to return to its normal resting length and shape after being stretched) and allowing the activation (i.e., contractility) of the antagonist (i.e., pulling in the other direction) muscle to regain balance of tension.
By placing it under muscle groups, foam rolling is easily directed to and effective on the hips, thighs, calves, and upper and lower back. Simply maintain the pressure of bodyweight on the affected area while slowly rolling about the point of focus. Do so for at least the amount of time as would be done for conventional stretching: no less than 10 seconds.
A foam roller can be purchased, used at home, and is comparatively inexpensive against ongoing professional therapy; but, you get what you pay for.
By Michael Chapdelaine October 17, 2012