Does Myofascial Release Work for Fibromyalgia?

This Massage Technique May Decrease Pain With Fibromyalgia

A massage therapist's hands press on a client's back.
Myofascial release is a specialized type of massage. Maksim Ozerov/Getty Images

Evidence suggesting the unique pain of fibromyalgia may stem largely from the fascia has led to interest in a type of massage called myofascial release.

It’s common to hear someone with fibromyalgia say, "My muscles ache all over my body, all the time." But as scientists work to understand the cause of fibromyalgia pain, they’re looking less and less at the muscles and instead focusing more on the fascia.

What Is Fascia?

You know that white, filmy layer on the outside of a chicken breast? That's the fascia. Pronounced FASH-ah, it is a thin but strong tissue that wraps around every muscle in your body and the structures inside the muscles. It also surrounds other structures in your body, including organs, nerves and blood vessels. Fascia forms a bodywide network of connective tissue that's essential for proper function.

Like muscle tissue, fascial tissue can become injured, inflamed and painful. Myofascial release practitioners say the fascia can form adhesions, which are places where it's bunched up and stuck together, causing the fascia to pull on other structures, create pain and impair function.

Fascia in Fibromyalgia

A condition called myofascial pain syndrome, in which fascial restrictions and trigger points cause widespread pain, is extremely common in people with fibromyalgia. In fact, fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome are considered risk factors for each other.

Portions of the healthcare community believe they are actually the same condition.

A review authored by Ginevra Liptan, MD,  suggested that inflammation and poorly functioning fascia surrounding muscle cells were causing the all-over pain of fibromyalgia and may be due to a dysfunctional healing response.

Dr. Liptan hypothesizes that problems with the fascia may lead to central sensitization, which is a key factor of the condition and involves the central nervous system becoming hypersensitive to pain. In her book, Figuring Out Fibromyalgia, she outlines her theory of how the fascia is chronically tensed and how that leads to a cascade of other symptoms.

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release, also called the "trigger point method," is a massage technique in which the therapist uses gentle, sustained pressure on the problem areas to release adhesions and smooth out the fascia.

Multiple studies show that myofascial release can result in decreased pain, better posture, reduced symptoms, increased range of motion and improved quality of life.

Myofascial Release and Fibromyalgia

We don't have a lot of research on myofascial release for fibromyalgia, but what we do have is promising. 

A study out of Spain showed that 20 weeks of myofascial release improved sleep, pain, anxiety levels and quality of life in people with fibromyalgia for at least a month after the treatment ended. At the six-month mark, sleep quality was still higher but other improvements had tapered off, suggesting a need for continued treatment.

A small 2017 study looked at self-myofascial release, in which people were taught to treat themselves. Researchers say that, in people who practiced it regularly, it resulted in significant changes in:

  • good days per week
  • pain intensity
  • fatigue
  • stiffness
  • depression
  • range of motion

Because fibromyalgia makes us so sensitive to touch and pressure, some people are reluctant to try massage. The gentleness of myofascial release may make it easier for many to tolerate than deeper forms of massage, such as Rolfing. With any form of hands-on therapy, it's crucial to communicate with your therapist about how much pressure you can tolerate and any pain you may experience during or after treatment.

Before you try myofascial release or another form of massage, be sure to find a qualified therapist.

Sources:

Castro-Sanchez AM, et al. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM. 2011;2011:561753. Benefits of massage-myofascial release therapy on pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia.

Ceda D, Elvira L, Guzman JF, Pablos A. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 2017 Jul-Aug;57(7-8):993-1002. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707. Benefits of a self-myofascial release program on health-related quality of life in people with fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial.

Kain J, et al. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2011 Jan;15(1):63-7. Comparison of an indirect tri-planar myofascial release (MFR) technique and a hot pack for increasing range of motion.

Liptan GL. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2010 Jan;14(1):3-12 Fascia: A missing link in our understanding of the pathology of fibromyalgia.

Meltzer KR, et al. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2010 Apr;14(2):162-71. In vitro modeling of repetitive motion injury and myofascial release.

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