The Frozen Fascia of Fibromyalgia: Myofascial Release

Shoulders and torso of a woman's naked body pained with black pain strokes, looking like bruising.  Her arms are crossed covering her breast.  Purple font: The Frozen Fascia of Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Release

Frozen Fascia

There are times when I feel like Elsa after she’s journeyed too far into Atohallen. If you don’t understand that Disney movie reference, you clearly don’t have a five-year old granddaughter with whom you spend a lot of time. Joking aside, the meat of my body feels like it’s frozen, in the tightest of sense.

Whenever my yoga teacher or guided meditation tells me to take a deep breath and focus on letting the tension of my muscles relax or “melt into the floor”, I get so frustrated. It just doesn’t happen for me. It’s taken a year of meditation to finally feel the slightest let down in my shoulders. I often got the sense from those treating me, that they have felt I was just not trying to cooperate.

Learning to Let Down

In one sense, I wasn’t cooperating because my body has been this way for so long. I just don’t know HOW to let go. I don’t even understand the sensation of it. When I was in pelvic floor therapy this past March, my therapist used biofeedback. With the sensor inserted, I was then instructed to squeeze my pelvic floor muscles as if I was trying to stop urinating midstream (Kegel exercise).

On the screen, I could see the graph line shoot up. Then, I was asked to release. The line slowly dipped down, but not as far as it had gone up. It took me quite a while to be able to fully let down; the only way I could sense that I had was through seeing the visual on the screen. Usually women need to do Kegels to strengthen; I’m the opposite (due to Interstitial Cystitis/Bladder Pain Syndrome), I need to learn how to unclench.

My Intro to Myofascial Release

A couple of years ago, my yoga studio hosted a myofascial release class. The teacher taught us how to use therapy balls the size of tennis balls and our yoga blocks to put pressure into the body’s trigger areas. At the time, I didn’t know anything about fascia, but I did know that deep-down, literally all over my body, I experience an aching pain that finds some relief when I press on it.

Up until that point, I had been doing a lot of self massage, to the point that people would stare and I would cause bruising all over my body. I even wrote a poem about this issue.

Frantic for Release

From that first exposure, I began to research. Through that research (finding articles and how-to videos), I developed my routine, investing in a wide assortment of myofascial release tools. I developed techniques for my jaw, shoulders, arms, stomach, pelvis, legs, feet, and hands. And, they did bring relief.

When “painsomnia” would hit, I’d go to the floor with my heating pad and therapy ball and spend an hour or two rolling around. I would feel better after and usually get to sleep. If after a hike, I was frozen up, I would do the same. The extreme soreness would dissipate; however, the pain never goes away and returns to its higher intensity pretty much every day.

An image of a pealed orange.  Purple font: Fascia: The 3-D Web that holds us together Gold font: Fascia Covers and Connects

Fascia-The Three Demential Web

Fascia is said to be the Cinderella of body systems. In medical school, until recently, it was fully ignored. When doing human body dissection, students were instructed to trim it off organs to be able to study the organ more readily. The fascia ending up in the waste can.

However, as research and understanding is advancing, it is now understood that fascia is in fact a full system that needs to be invited to the ball. This 3-D web that covers every organ, bone, muscle, and even cell. It is amazing how its structure differs depending on its placement and need, going from thick honeycomb to loose, gooey fibers.

The strong yet stretchy fibers of fascia are mostly made of collagen encased in a gluey, snot like substance that holds us together. If fascia didn’t exist, we would not have a shape and look much like a tent draping over its poles. Besides giving us form, fascia also helps with the smooth movement of our tissues and organs.

Amazingly, fascia not only connects every part of our body, but it is highly in sync with our autonomic nervous system as it is chock-full of nerves. We’ve all heard of cases of superhuman strength, occurring at a time of horrible trauma, such as the 2009 incident of a man actually able to lift a car off from his 3-year old daughter.

This is an example fascia and the fight/flight system working in tandem to help a human survive. It tightens and can “harden” as a response to the many nerves that run through it.

BW image of naked woman covered in grey and black brush strokes (as if in pain), arms crossed, covering her chest. Purple Text: Frozen Fibromyalgia Fascai Gold Text: Always in Fight/Flight

Fascia and Fibromyalgia

Studies have found that beyond the autonomic neurosystem of the Fibromyalgia patient being on overdrive, their fascia itself has some abnormalities. Researchers, looking at biopsies of Fibro fascia has an unusual amount of immune cells and collagen. According to Dr. Ginevra Liptan, Fibro patient, researcher, and doctor, “There is growing data that pain from the fascia generates fibromyalgia muscle pain, and this has been my personal, clinical, and research experience.”

I don’t have chronic pain in one spot. I have it everywhere in my body. When I’ve used the therapy for myofascial release, I find one place leads to the next and to the next. I liken it to a throbbing toothache that seems to go from head to foot.

From my own experience, this makes perfect sense. I don’t have chronic pain in one spot. I have it everywhere in my body. When I’ve used the therapy for myofascial release, I find one place leads to the next and to the next. I explain it to a throbbing toothache that seems to go from head to foot.

The Fibro Manual and Myofascial Release (MFR)

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I am a big fan of Dr. Ginevra Liptan, a doctor who has devoted her career to figuring out how best to treat Fibromyalgia (FM). She developed FM when she was in medical school at a time when it wasn’t understood. She spent years, using herself as a guinea pig, to figure out how best to treat FM.

I’ve read many of her posts and watched all of her videos. However, I hadn’t read her book The Fibro Manual until more recently. One of the things she talks about is how being treated by a specific type of myofascial release made a huge difference in her ability to function.

“MFR is by the far the most effective treatment I have found to unstick the fascia and reduce fibromyalgia pain. When I stumbled across it after being diagnosed, I saw a huge improvement in my pain levels, particularly in my back, neck, and jaw. I also noted changes in the way my body felt: my tissues finally started to relax. For days after treatment, I slept deeper and woke up feeling less tight.”

Dr. Ginevra Liptan, The Fibro Manual

The word myofascial refers to the fascia that covers our muscle fibers. In her book, Dr. Liptan explains that a special form of myofascial release (MFR) developed in the 1970s by a physical therapist named John F. Barnes works best for those living with Fibromyalgia. It is different than what most of us think of as massage (Swedish or deep tissue). MFR is a slow, gentle release and stretching of the fascia that causes long term pain reduction in Fibromyalgia patients.

“Studies show that the gentle sustained pressure of myofascial release speeds up tissue healing and reduces inflammation. Standard massage techniques do not stimulate fibroblasts or address fascial tightness, which may be why many people with fibromyalgia don’t find much benefit from standard massage therapy.”

Dr. Ginevra Liptan- The FibroManual

MFR for Fibromyalgia with John F. Barnes

Looking into finding a physical therapist who was trained in Barnes’ MFR by going to his website, I found one person who was about a 45-minute drive from my house.

My Surprising Experience

After a phone discussion with Rachel Davies, PT and expert level MFR therapist at Essence Physical Therapy, my husband and I decided to make the financial sacrifice for me to see if it could be the answer to managing my pain and issues connected to Interstitial Cystitis that I have. Unfortunately, my insurance won’t cover any of the cost.

Before we met, I filled out the normal medical history paperwork and circled all the areas of my body that hurt on the give body diagram. (I wait for the comment that comes every time when a new doctor sees that I’ve circled every part available on both sides as well as front and back views.) My urologist made a referral and asked for a pelvic floor evaluation and treatment.

I was given directions to wear shorts and a sports bra for the treatment and not to put on any lotion. While Rachel told me that this therapy was Body, Mind, Soul focused, I wasn’t quite sure what all that would entail.

My Initial Visit

My first appointment was 90 minutes in length. During this time Rachel used my paper work to guide our discussion. During our conversation, me sitting on a comfortable couch in the treatment room and she sitting across from me with her laptop for recording information, I shared that I was certain my FM developed due to living in Fight/Flight/Freeze for over 50 years.

I felt reassured when she shared that her own training had healed some pretty debilitating physical issues that she had also due to trauma she had gone through. She was happy to hear that I was also going to EMDR counseling as a part of my healing (look for a post about coming this soon).

Therapy on a Table

Myofascial Release helps us bring our bodies back to those positions in time to allow the emotions to be felt, and then released fully from the body, truly beginning the path to authentic healing. Since emotions are stored in the fascia, often releasing the fascia physically, can bring up emotions stored in that area from the original trauma(s). 

Issues in the Tissues on MFR Center’s Website

In sharing about my past, I got pretty emotional. While on the table, Rachel gently placed her hand under my lower back and the other just under my belly button, near my c-section scar. The touch was so gentle, I have to admit that I doubted it could do anything. (See the video above with Barnes that explains the technique of very slow and gentle pressure and stretching.)

She encouraged me to feel any emotions I was having. She explained that our body freezes at the time of trauma, holding in the emotions that we were experiencing. While I have read Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps Score, I still find this idea a bit hard to grasp.

What I experienced that night has made me a believer. That night, I slept through the WHOLE night. I didn’t have to get up to go pee, not once! This is NOT usual. For years and years, I have had to get up 2-3 times a night.

Second MFR Session

My second visit was for 60 minutes. Again, it was quite emotional. As serendipity would have it, to get to Rachel’s office, I have to drive by my childhood home, school, and the streets I knew well. This has certainly brought forth memories and emotions.

This time, my chronically painful bladder felt as if it was on fire. To be honest, it was actually worse by the end of the emotional session. However, to my shock, on my drive home, the pain just vanished, like gone. I haven’t had it intensely for the past two weeks.

Pelvic Floor Evaluation

At my most recent appointment, Rachel started to evaluate my pelvic floor. I have a lot of scarring in that general region from a c-section, an episiotomy, a hip labrum tear, and five laparoscopic incisions in and around my belly button for the GERD prevention Nissen procedure.

Towards the end of our session, I explained that I was having intense tightness and pain from my inner knee to my inner hip. (A physical therapist from several years ago had thought that my left hip labrum tear could have been connected to my bladder pain due to the pain causing everything to go so taut.) Rachel had me do an exercise that caused me to shake (legs and hip) as a form of trauma release also called body unwinding.

That evening, it was noticeably less pain and tightness in those muscles!

This is an example of one such exercise created by Dr David Berceli.
An image of me in my basement meditation, yoga space.  I'm seated, crosslegged, meditating.  Purple font: Rewiring My Brain Through MFR. Gold font: New Pathways Through Practice

Home Treatment

One reason I felt that getting this MFR treatment would be beneficial, even though it’s not covered by my insurance, is that Rachel is also training me how to better treat myself at home. While I had the gist, the nuanced changes will help me to maintain progress rather than feeling like I’m starting over every morning (at least that’s my hope).

In her book The Fibro Manual, Dr. Liptan confirms my own hope through the results that she’s had over several years now. She has found that myofascial release does calm down the ampt up brain of a person living with Fibromyalgia.

“Now if I do even a few minutes of self–myofascial release techniques using a ball or foam roller, it quickly helps me relax and reduces tightness. I found that the best way to talk to my brain is through my fascia!”

Dr. Ginevra Liptan, The Fibro Manual

The changes I’ve made is to 1. Hold the stretch (using the above book by Joyce Karis, PT) for 5-minutes and 2. Use a softer (air-filled) smooth 4.5″ ball. By going quickly and causing pain by using harsher equipment, I was actually ramping up my fight/flight in my body even though it felt good in the short run.

My Free Massage & Myofascial Release Guide

This can still help you. Just remember to use softer tools and to go slowly and gently.

I am not naive. It took 50+ years to get to this place; I know that it will continue to take a lot of time and practice to rewire my brain pathways. But, I have hope. I know that I am on the right path.

Thank you for visiting my blog today.  I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through as planned.  Thank you for your understanding.

Sharing is caring-as my granddaughter tells me:)

teal line drawn waterlily with teal lettering of the title and motto

5 thoughts on “The Frozen Fascia of Fibromyalgia: Myofascial Release

  • March 26, 2021 at 10:56 am

    I’m the exact same – need to learn how to unclench! It always feels strange that I can’t relax my pelvic floor muscles, but I’m working on it . . .

  • March 26, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    I’ve got similar pelvic floor issues too! Bladder issues were my second set of symptoms for my FND and while I had multiple years without those muscles being directly influenced by my FND, they’d adapted, so to speak. I haven’t done pelvic floor PT for the past year or two because my FND started having a more direct impact again. With what you’re sharing, I wonder more and more if myofacial release would be helpful for me, too!

  • March 29, 2021 at 2:51 am

    Terrific post and isn’t this topic so interesting? I have been following Dr. Liptan for years and started looking into MFR in 2015. I found a therapist here and the first thing she said during our appointment is that I’m too weak for the type of technique she does. That’s how I ended up starting out with Jin Shin Jyutsu, which is much more manageable for me and the aftermath isn’t as severe. It’s too bad these sessions are so expensive, but I do appreciate that you can use techniques on yourself at home!

  • March 29, 2021 at 10:13 am

    What an informative post, Katie. I need to bookmark this and go through it from time to time in case I forget! I do need to use more of these tools and practice myofascial release more. Love the granddaughter reference as always by the way 🙂

  • March 29, 2021 at 10:40 pm

    I have dystonia instead of fibro, but so much of this sounds familiar. Tennis balls really help!


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