Myofascial release and massage therapy
In the field of bodywork, there is a wide range of hands-on care techniques. Most of these techniques focus on decreasing pain, relaxation, and healing. Myofascial release (MFR) and traditional massage are two techniques of bodywork. While these two approaches to hands-on care do share some similarities, they also have their differences. Especially when it comes to their focus, foundations, and intended outcome. This post will explore the ways MFR and traditional massage differ by examining their characteristics, applications, and benefits.
What is myofascial release?
Myofascial release (MFR) is a hands-on soft tissue technique that focuses on releasing restricted connective tissue, or fascia. The fascial system is a network of three-dimensional connective tissue that envelops and supports every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel, and organ in the body, all the way down to the cellular level. It is crucial for providing stability, support, and transmitting force to protect us against trauma. Tight or restricted fascia can cause decreased mobility, restrictions in blood flow, and pressure on nerves which can result in numbness and/or tingling. Tight or restricted fascia can also increase our risk for injury and pain. Some of the ways fascia can become restricted are through physical trauma, inflammation, and/or poor posture. The goal of a MFR practitioner is to release fascial restrictions and restore its natural mobility and health. To do so, a MFR practitioner will use gentle, constant pressure and stretch to the tissue. From a physiological perspective, there are some subtle changes that occur in the tissue after 90 to 120 seconds. But, in MFR treatments, pressure and stretch are typically held for at least five minutes. After this amount of time, the tissue undergoes cellular changes and begins to relax and elongate. (1) This phenomenon is called the piezoelectric effect.
What is the piezoelectric effect?

The sustained pressure and stretch used during an MFR treatment is purposeful and powerful. And, it is what allows the piezoelectric effect to occur. The prolonged pressure on the fascia causes a chemical reaction to occur in the cells. The result of this reaction is electrical charges, or the piezoelectric effect. (2) These electrical charges have a many benefits:

1. Healing injuries: The electrical charges produced in the fascia by the piezoelectric effect may send signals to surrounding cells. These signals act as a messenger to tell cells to increase cellular activity of repair and regeneration to promote healing and recovery of damaged tissue. (3)

2. Tissue recovery: The electrical charges also help tissues heal by stimulating collagen, a protein in the body and the primary building block of fascia. These charges shift the tissue from a restricted and solid state to one that is relaxed and fluid. (4) This helps promote recovery, elasticity, and mobility.

3. Pain regulation: The electrical charges generated during MFR have a pain-relieving effect. It is documented that these charges interact with our nervous system through releasing mechanical pressure of nerve tissue and by nourishing nerve cells. In doing so, nerve tissue can heal and patients can see a great reduction in pain. (5)

Given the sustained gentle pressure to the fascial system during MFR treatment, the piezoelectric effect becomes fundamental to the success of MFR.
What is Traditional massage?
Traditional massage encompasses a variety of techniques and styles of bodywork. Some examples include Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, trigger point massage, and sports massage. Specific techniques for each type of massage may vary. However, almost all techniques will focus on manipulating the soft tissues in different ways. Some ways of manipulating soft tissue include kneading, gliding, and compressing. These motions will exert pressure on targeted muscles and soft tissues. Different pressures and strokes can be used to target superficial or deep muscle layers. It is also common for a massage therapist to use lotions and/or oils to facilitate ease in movement across the skin.
The primary focus of traditional massage is to relieve pain or discomfort by reducing muscle tension, increasing blood flow, stimulating the nervous system, and promoting relaxation. The pressure produced by the massage therapist hands on the targeted soft tissue will assist in proper blood flow. Increased blood flow means increased flow of oxygen and nutrients, which can help promote healing. (6) Additionally, hands-on care has been linked to stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that calms the body, promotes relaxation, and decreases stress. (7)
The similarities between myofascial release and traditional massage
Both MFR and traditional massage focus on relieving pain and discomfort. They aim to do so by using hands-on therapeutic techniques. Both approaches allow the treatment to be individualized. Meaning, the care you receive from either a massage therapist or MFR practitioner will be tailored to meet your specific needs. Additionally, both approaches hold a holistic view in regards to health and healing.
Additionally, both approaches recognize the connection between the mind and the body, and remain mindful of that connection throughout patient treatment. Patients can receive many of the same benefits from either MFR and traditional massage treatments. Some of these benefits include reduced muscle tension, increased circulation, improved range of motion (8), decreased stress (7), increased relaxation (7), and pain relief (9).

3. Pain regulation: The electrical charges generated during MFR have a pain-relieving effect. It is documented that these charges interact with our nervous system through releasing mechanical pressure of nerve tissue and by nourishing nerve cells. In doing so, nerve tissue can heal and patients can see a great reduction in pain. (5)

Given the sustained gentle pressure to the fascial system during MFR treatment, the piezoelectric effect becomes fundamental to the success of MFR.
Key Differences between myofascial release and traditional massage
Although myofascial release and traditional massage therapy share similar goals, their approaches and techniques differ. The key differences between myofascial release and traditional massage can be summarized as follows:

Targeted Approach vs. Generalized Approach: Myofascial release is a whole-body approach, and also a targeted approach that focuses on releasing tension and restrictions in the fascia, specifically. Massage therapy is a more generalized approach. During a treatment session, multiple body regions will be treated. Although some areas may be more targeted than others, it tends to be more generalized and has little to no lasting effect on fascial health when compared to MFR.

Pace and Timing: Traditional massage sessions involve continuous movements. This tends to add a flowing quality to treatment sessions. In contrast, MFR treatments involve slower, deliberate hands-on contact. This approach allows the MFR practitioner to sense and respond to the patient. This is sometimes called ‘resonance’, or when the practitioner and patients’ energy meld. According to the leading expert in MFR, John F. Barnes, this is where true healing occurs. Resonance allows a MFR practitioner to sense and follow the fascia as it releases in order to access the deepest restrictions. The pace of MFR treatment sessions tend to be slower when compared to traditional massage therapy sessions.

Piezoelectric Effect in Myofascial Release: MFR treatments focus on the piezoelectric effect. As mentioned above, gentle, sustained pressure on fascia triggers the piezoelectric effect. (1) (2) This effect produces electrical charges. These electrical charges can have many benefits. Some benefits include tissue healing and repair, and improved health. (3) Traditional massage therapists do not focus on the piezoelectric effect and resonance, but more so strokes through the soft tissues using their hands and even massage tools.

Depth and Intensity: Traditional massage includes a variety of techniques. Depending on the particular type of massage, depth and intensity can vary. Hands-on kneading, tapping, and compression can be used to change depth and intensity. A deep tissue massage would likely be more intense than a Swedish massage. Additionally, a total body massage may be less intense than a massage targeted to one body region.

In MFR treatments, the practitioner will apply sustained pressure. Compared to traditional massage, the pressure applied during an MFR session tends to be deeper over time during the session. MFR practitioners can alter the depth and pressure of treatments by following the release. Stretching and elongation provided by an MFR practitioner tends to be gentle and sustained. Stretches are typically held for 90 to 120 seconds.

Sensation and Experience: Traditional massage treatments are often deeply relaxing and soothing. Treatment sessions may also tap into multiple senses. For example, calming music and essential oils may be used by a massage therapist to promote relaxation. Myofascial release treatments can also be soothing. However, as MFR practitioners work through different areas of restriction, some mild discomfort may be felt. This is often described as “good pain.” The discomfort felt during MFR treatments often indicates progress toward releasing tension and restoring optimal function of the system. Over the years, patients very often describe MFR as “profound” and “life changing”. How could this be? The easy answer is that MFR treatment is addressing the core of many pain conditions- the body’s physical response to injury and trauma and creating lasting change and health to the system.

Short-Term Benefits vs. Long-Term Benefits: Massage therapy can offer short-term benefits. Some of these benefits include relaxation, improved blood circulation, and temporary relief from muscle tension. While these benefits can be valuable for pain relief and comfort, they may not provide long-lasting results. MFR therapy, on the other hand, creates long-term changes in the fascial tissue. Apart from creating whole-body release of fascial restrictions, MFR also improves tissue hydration, promotes metabolic change, hormonal balance, and potentially mental/emotional health. Over time, this can lead to sustained improvements in flexibility, movement, and overall health and wellness.

Focus on Fascial System: MFR treatments place a specific emphasis on the fascial system. MFR practitioners recognize fascia’s role in supporting and influencing the function of our muscles, organs, blood vessels, and nerves. They also recognize the importance of the fascial system in injury prevention, recovery, and mobility. Traditional massage therapists will not focus on the fascial system specifically. Instead, they will be more attuned to the more superficial muscular system.

What’s right for you
Myofascial release and traditional massage therapy are valuable hands-on therapeutic techniques. They both offer unique and influential benefits. Some of these benefits include promoting relaxation, decreasing stress, increasing circulation, improving range of motion, and assisting in pain relief. Where they differ is in their technique and approach. MFR focuses on relieving restricted fascia by utilizing the piezoelectric effect. Traditional massage therapy focuses on muscular health and healing. The MFR approach tends to be more specific, while traditional massage therapy sessions tend to be more generalized. Both approaches have the potential to significantly improve our health and overall quality of life.
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