By Ginevra Liptan, MD *Links may generate a commission for this site
Fibromyalgia pain stems from inflamed and stuck fascia, the connective tissue that runs like a three-dimensional web throughout the body. It surrounds and supports every cell, nerve, organ, muscle, and bone in your body. When it is restricted, it dehydrates and becomes like glue. It not only loses its mobility, but it can also exert force on underlying structures — up to 2,000 lbs. per square inch! This tension creates pain, reduces range of motion and can cause bizarre, seemingly unrelated symptoms when fascia entraps nerves.
Additionally, fascia is tightly integrated into the autonomic nervous system. It is particularly effective at contracting throughout the entire body when the nervous system is in fight-or-flight mode, all in the interest of keeping us safe. But in a condition such as fibromyalgia, the chronic activation of the fight-or-flight mode leaves the fascia in a constricted, tense state, which leads to pain and dysfunction.
Manual therapies that gently unstick these tight areas of fascia, such as the John F. Barnes Myofascial Release Approach (MFR) can be hugely helpful in reducing fibromyalgia pain. In fact it is MFR that gave me enough improvement in pain that I could get back to medical school after developing fibromyalgia. MFR involves applying gentle, sustained pressure into these connective tissue restrictions to eliminate pain and restore motion. By going slowly and waiting for the body’s natural rhythm, the fascia responds by elongating, rehydrating, and reorganizing.
But you don’t have to take my word for it! In two European studies, after 20 sessions of MFR fibromyalgia subjects reported significant pain reduction. What was really great about these studies is that they showed long-lasting pain relief, with subjects reporting reduced levels of pain one month and six months after their last session. I also led a pilot study at Oregon Health and Science University that compared six sessions of myofascial release to standard massage for fibromyalgia, and the MFR group had greater pain reduction.
MFR is a hands-on treatment performed on the skin with no oils or creams. The gentle tension between the therapist’s hands and the patient’s skin is what allows access to the fascia in a way that the gliding effect of traditional massage cannot achieve. By following the unique lines of tension in each patient’s body, the MFR therapist can reach deeply into the tissues and uncover significant restrictions.
MFR is also something that you can learn to do at home on yourself. In fact, a 2017 study found that a program of self-myofascial release reduced fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and improved quality of life. Even doing 5 minutes a day of MFR can make a huge difference. To learn how to do this I highly recommend this self-treatment video series.
Compared to other forms of bodywork, myofascial release is very gentle and slow. Generally speaking, traditional massage and physical therapy techniques can hurt people with chronic pain because often the therapists are trying to force through fascial restrictions, and the patient’s body reflexively tenses and causes a flare. MFR never forces, but rather gently waits for the body to release restrictions on its own schedule. This eliminates most of the pain from traditional bodywork.
However, each person’s fascial restrictions are different, and addressing some very old or “stuck” restrictions can generate a temporary painful "healing crisis” that ultimately has the end result of lower pain and improved tissue health. You can find a qualified therapist at mfrtherapists.com.
Author Bio: Ginevra Liptan, MD, developed fibromyalgia while in medical school. She is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine and board-certified in internal medicine. Dr. Liptan is the founder and medical director of The Frida Center for Fibromyalgia and the author of The FibroManual: A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide For You...And Your Doctor and The Fibro Food Formula: A Real-Life Approach to Fibromyalgia Relief.