There's nothing pleasant about stiff muscles. But have you ever wondered what's going on inside your body when that happens? The root of the problem can often be connected to your body's fascia, a thin layer of soft connective tissue found throughout our entire body. When injured or inflamed, your fascia can become stiff and cause pain.
When our muscles feel tight and uncomfortable, we naturally spring into action to find treatments that will offer some reprieve. While the best course of action is to seek professional help from a physical therapist, myofascial release is one technique that can also be done at home to try to alleviate tension and restore mobility. Ahead, we consulted with six physical therapists to learn more about myofascial release and the stretches you can do at home.
Meet the Expert
- Amy Price Hoover, PT, DPT, is a mobile physical therapist and wellness provider.
- Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, is a licensed physical therapist and board-certified sports specialist.
- Christine Koth, MPT, is a holistic physical therapist and best-selling author.
- Patricia Ladis PT, CBBA, is a physical therapist and behavioral breathing analyst.
- Briana Bain, DPT, PT, is a Virginia-based physical therapist based in Virginia Beach, VA.
- Nicole Psomas, PT, MS, CLT/MLD, is a board-certified physical therapist.
What Is Fascia?
As noted above, fascia is a soft connective tissue found throughout the body. "It helps to suspend organs, vessels, and other structures while also allowing movement," Dr. Hoover says. "It is pliable tissue and overlays our muscular system between the skin and the muscle to allow stretching and activation of the underlying muscles. If you can imagine, it is almost like a spiderweb that stretches but has space for fluid."
According to Hoover, muscle tension, trauma, and inflammatory fluids can cause the fascia to become stiff and adhere to the underlying muscle. "Lack of movement variability and suboptimal nutrition and habits can also cause it to adapt and limit how effectively the fascia slides and glides with the body," Dr. Malek adds.
What Is Myofascial Release?
Myofascial release is one treatment available to reduce your muscle pain. "It is a type of physical therapy often used to treat myofascial pain syndrome," Psomas notes. "Myofascial release (MFR) therapy focuses on releasing muscular shortness and tightness."
Psomas says a physical therapist, chiropractor, or even massage therapist will massage the muscles and fascia to work out knots during an in-person session. "This bodywork technique also involves applying pressure to tight or sore areas to get them to relax," she explains. "The pressure is applied with the therapist’s hands, elbows, or a massage tool like a foam roller or a ball. You might feel sore afterward, but when the soreness subsides, you’ll feel a lot looser than you did before."
While many people believe that myofascial release helps stretch tense muscles, that is not the case. "Many people think that different motions stretch the fascia, but because the fascia is so strong, it cannot be stretched," Koth points out. "What's happening is those motions are mobilizing the fascia and helping it glide more smoothly on the tissues around it."
The Benefits of Myofascial Release
Experts agree myofascial release offers proven benefits: "Myofascial release increases the extensibility of muscles and fascia by improving the alignment of the muscle fibers and decreasing tension," Dr. Bain says.
Ladis says it is also an appealing form of therapy because of its long-term impact. "Most often, you will have longer-lasting effects compared to generally massaging a muscle, better circulation to the area, improved nerve mobility in the area, and overall better muscular function," she says.
Myofascial Stretches You Can Practice at Home
Plantar Fascia Stretch
"Position yourself like you’re doing a standing calf stretch, except place a towel roll under the toes of the back foot," Dr. Malek says. "Hold with a straight knee, then drop the back knee, all while keeping the heel down for both."
Child’s Pose Stretch
"Sit back onto your heels and reach out in front on the floor," Dr. Malek says. "Add a side variation by walking over to each side."
The Spinal Twist
"Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor/bed, keeping the knees and feet together," Ladis explains. "Bring both arms over your chest, keeping elbows straight and hands touching. Slide the right arm over the left and allow both arms to move to the left with elbows remaining straight. Simultaneously, allow for both knees to move to the right. Stay in the range of motion you can control. Perform 10 slow repetitions, paying attention to your form and breathing. Do this every morning and evening before bed to release [spinal myofascial pain]."
Other At-Home Myofascial Release Methods
Use a Thera Cane Massager
"You can press the pointed parts of a Theracane into trigger points," Dr. Bain suggests. "These can sometimes be uncomfortable and even painful depending on the severity of the trigger points. It is important to take deep breaths and focus on trying to relax the affected muscle to allow for optimal improvements in relaxation and extensibility."
Use a Tennis Ball
"Tennis balls work for a less intense pressure, or you can use a lacrosse or golf ball to dig a little deeper, as tolerated," Dr. Bain says. "Lay on the ball or stand with it against the wall and press it into wherever you have trigger points. Hold pressure until your symptoms resolve."
Try an Online Mobility Class
"P.volve, a functional fitness method, has workouts that use both a foam roller and massage balls to target the fascia for both self-treatment and whole-body movements," Dr. Hoover says. "Try P.volve’s 8-Day Full Body Restore to help improve myofascial mobility and decrease or prevent myofascial pain."
When to See a Professional
Frequent muscle pain is not something to ignore. If it affects your ability to engage in daily activities or the pain seems to spread, seek medical attention. "When muscular or myofascial pain sticks around for more than two weeks, it’s best to consult an orthopedic or sports physical therapist or your doctor," Ladis adds. "Getting treatment early can help to nip the symptoms and reduce your chances of chronic pain."
Koth also advises seeking professional help, as pinpointing the source of your myofascial pain can be tricky. "If you're considering addressing your fascia, you may want to seek out a physical therapist or manual therapist who can assess what type of fascial restrictions or trigger points you might have and guide you on a precise plan for addressing those areas," she says. "Given that the fascia is so vast throughout your entire body, there's a lot of possibilities of where it might be restricted."
The Final Takeaway
Myofascial release is a suitable therapy treatment for sore or stiff muscles. There are various at-home myofascial release stretches and methods you can implement into your routine to try to reduce pain in affected regions. However, it is always best practice to consult with your doctor to properly treat your muscle pain.
Cleveland Clinic. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. Updated July 6, 2020.