Blog Post

The New Age Hijacking of Myofascial Release Therapy

DP writes: "I have had myofascial release done on my neck and other parts of my body by physical therapists in the past. Not by massage therapists, but actual PT's.  . . . Can you speak of this on your blog, under the name of myofascial release, so that people may be aware of how similar this practice is to craniosacral therapy, and how they have the potential to make one vulnerable to the occult?" Myofascial release therapy (MRT) is considered a complimentary therapy but it is not New Age. However, a lot of New Age concepts have been attached to it and many practitioners are also involved in other less credible modalities, such as the craniosacral therapy you mention. (The two are not related.) In short, MRT is a form of physical therapy that involves the use of deep-tissue massage to stretch and release bonds between connective tissues known as fascia in order to achieve better muscle alignment and a greater range of motion.  Fascia is densely woven connective tissue similar to a spider web that covers and penetrates every muscle, bone, nerve, organ and vein of our body. It consists of several layers: a superficial fascia, a deep fascia, and a subserous (or visceral) fascia and extends uninterrupted from head to the toe. There has been quite a bit of clinical testing done on MFR but little evidence that it works. The latest study, conducted this year on fibromyalgia patients by Spanish researchers, found that "myofascial release techniques can be a complementary therapy for pain symptoms, physical function and clinical severity but do not improve postural stability in patients with fibromyalgia syndrome."  MRT was originally developed by Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO (1828 - 1917), who is considered to be the father of osteopathic medicine. The term "myofascial" was first used by Janet G. Travell, MD in 1976 when she began to refer to musculoskeletal pain syndromes as "myofascial trigger points." The reason MRT remains in the realm of complementary and alternative medicine is because no hard proof of its mechanism of action has ever been established. Much has been published about it, but the basic science behind it remains obscure. The bigger problem with MRT is that it has been co-opted by New Agers who ascribe all kinds of nonsense to its practice. Some of this silliness includes a belief that trauma to the body can trap memories and unexpressed emotions and that these "incomplete experiences" can alter the physiology of the body.  This trapped potential energy is supposedly freed by MRT. In an article posted on Trusted.MD, one New Age MFT practitioner boasted on his blog: "I'm in Ocean City, Maryland, presenting my Myofascial Release I class. The class was very subdued until today. Talk about kicking the pebble that starts the avalanche! I was treating a young therapist on stage and she got in touch with a keep wound and started to cry. She went back in time and her voice sounded very young. The rest of the class started to sob and wail almost instantaneously. The chaos was powerful and explosive!" Another example of the lunacy surrounding MRT by these wacky practitioners was written in an article by a physical therapist named Bob Shutes who had this experience in a PE course he took on MRT: "The initiation ceremony began with yours truly supine on a plinth in the middle of the room. With an absolutely straight face my course presenter began holding her palms a few inches above my torso. After a few hushed moments she intoned that she was beginning to feel some warmth over my right shoulder! "Once my warmth had been verified it was time to begin “unwinding” my right upper extremity which (unbeknownst to me) had apparently gotten pretty wound up. My instructor began applying vigorous manual traction to my right arm and then began to slowly and magically circumduct it, all the while telling the class (and I’m not kidding here) “I am not moving his arm! It’s moving all by itself!” "With mouths rounded in slack-jawed wonder, my classmates were transfixed. . . . Temptation came my way and once again I could not resist it. When a classmate asked if my arm was really moving all by itself I said 'No, not at all, she’s pulling it around pretty hard.' Not to be dismayed by my remark the instructor confidently told me 'No I’m not! It just feels that way to you.' And then to the group “I’m not doing anything at all. It wants to unwind all by itself!' All I could do was grin and think, 'Please! Release my old fascia or you’re going to pull my arm off!'” Unfortunately, for those who want to try MRT from a bonafide physical therapist, they have to navigate their way through a thicket of  New Age practitioners who will also want to offer them craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, and a variety of other "modalities" that have been proven effective at nothing more than emptying wallets.  Unless you're willing to do your homework on whatever practitioner you choose, I would avoid MFT until the field cleans itself up.