Urged on my peers on both sides of the argument, here is an initial version of what I hope becomes a more permanent way to describe the work I use and teach. Comments, suggestions, and criticisms are always welcome (post below). Edits will be made to this post as comments come forward, both here as well as from social media.
Myofascial release (MFR) is one style of manual therapy that uses slow, still, prolonged stretching through clothing or directly on the skin to facilitate change in the patient. Whether having its primary effects on fascia, as historically believed, or on skin, muscle, other tissues, or the nervous system in general, it is realistically a more complex direct and indirect interrelationship of overlapping systems. The goal of MFR is most often to reduce the feeling of tightness and to lessen pain, allowing for more freedom of movement and improvement in functional abilities. While other forms of MFR vary, The Walt Fritz, PT form of MFR relies on direct patient feedback to drive evaluation and treatment, assuring that interventions are patient-specific. (edit 5/13/18)
Myofascial release (MFR) is a style of manual therapy most typically associated with its historical roots, which relied on perceptions that one could label pain and various movement disorders a result of tightness/restriction within the fascia/connective tissue. Most therapists using MFR were taught that they were able to selectively and singularly impact these fascial restrictions to the exclusion of other tissues, with the goal of reducing pain and restoring more normal movement patterns, with any mention of the nervous system added as afterthoughts. While MFR has been a popular and effective form of manual therapy for decades, the claims made by its proponents have yet to be proven, though these issues exist for nearly all forms and brands of manual therapy and massage.
Most brands of MFR, manual therapy, and massage claim that pain/movement problems are due to one specific tissue and make claims to be able to specifically impact that particular problem, all while having remarkably similar styles of engagement as the next type of therapy.
While it may be possible to be able to target one tissue under the skin for intervention, more plausible explanations come from neuroscience-based explanations, as well as the potential impact of contextual factors. These models look at more central mechanisms to explain the local effects of manual therapy, including MFR. Using such principles as neurodynamic technique, where nerve tension is reduced, allowing more freedom of movement and less pain, as well as skin/superficially embedded receptors that can signal the effects of MFR at the local level, with changes in pain/movement problems being an outcome of brain output via the central nervous system. These ideas work from the knowledge that the nervous system is in ultimate control, though in partnership with, the remainder of the soft and bony structures in the body. Though neuroscience-based models also lack full proof, they may be “less wrong” than many of the various other models.
Briefly, MFR has a typical style of engagement that uses slow, still, prolonged stretching to facilitate change in the patient. Whether having its primary effects on skin, fascia, muscle, nerves, or other tissues, its goal is to reduce the feeling of tightness and to lessen pain, allowing for more freedom of movement. I call my work MFR in reference to a very recognizable style of hands-on engagement typically associated with myofascial release, rather than due to thoughts that it is fascia that I am selectively engaging.
With such uncertainty, where does that leave the therapist and consumer? Therapists still treat in the manner they were taught, with hands-on interventions typically very helpful. The best choice may be to keep explanations simple. While it may be the fascia, muscle, joints, knots, trigger points, or a host of other tissues and pathologies are responsible for our problems, we can only work through the skin. Everything else is a stretch (pun intended!).