A non-invasive massage technique designed to ease chronic pain by targeting and stopping involuntary muscle contraction, Structural Relief Therapy differs from more traditional approaches to massage in that it does not force tense muscles to relax through the direct manipulation of tissues. Practitioners instead help the body shift into a position of ease that gently and indirectly stimulates change.
What Is Structural Relief Therapy?
SRT, which was first introduced in the mid-1980s, was developed by massage therapist Taya Countryman over the course of several years. This approach to massage therapy combines the osteopathic principles of Muscle Energy Technique, Strain-Counterstrain and fascia release to quickly relieve involuntary muscle contraction. According to Countryman, when muscles contract involuntarily, whether as a result of sleep, an accident, or postural habits, the body attempts to compensate by developing new patterns of movement. (Think of it as having a stone in your shoe and adjusting the way you walk in order to avoid putting pressure on the stone.) These compensatory mechanisms are intended to protect the body, but they often restrict range of motion and can lead to pain and discomfort. Sustained contraction of one muscle can also cause the opposing muscle to become overstretched, resulting in inflammation and pain.
SRT works by gently reducing involuntary muscle contraction through careful positioning of the body. These involuntary contractions are thought to result from a dysfunction in the transmission of neurological signals between the affected muscle and the brain, and proponents of SRT believe comfortable, pain-free positions can reprogram these signals. Unlike other approaches, which focus on stretching tight muscles, SRT uses positions designed to shorten contracted muscles in order to cause involuntary contractions to stop and the tissue to relax and lengthen.
What Happens in a Structural Relief Session?
Several steps are used in SRT to reduce muscle contraction. The therapist first assesses tense muscles by talking to the client, observing the body, and using palpation techniques and then locates the SRT Tender Point. This point, a small area of tense muscle that is much more sensitive than the surrounding tissue, helps the practitioner locate the strands of the muscle causing pain and monitor changes in tissue tension.
During the massage process, the practitioner positions the body as passively as possible to eliminate the pain of the Tender Point. Positions are generally held for 90-120 seconds. While monitoring changes in the Tender Point with one hand, the therapist uses the other hand to gradually move the body until the client reports the pain of the Tender Point is mostly or completely gone. Several adjustments might have to be made before the most comfortable position is found. Throughout the process, the therapist will continually assess the tissue to determine the nature and extent of changes.
In SRT, the client usually lies on a massage table, but no oils or lotions are used. The treatment is administered with the client fully clothed, though loose-fitting or stretchy clothing is recommended. Practitioners allow the client’s body to lead the process and direct the therapist toward the position that is most appropriate.
SRT is designed to produce results quickly, and some report reduced pain after just one session. However, since focus is usually placed on the most recent involuntary muscle contraction, individuals with longstanding or complex symptoms usually require several sessions.
SRT may be used on its own or in conjunction with other forms of treatment. Practitioners from other massage modalities may also choose to incorporate the SRT approach into sessions as needed. Some practitioners also teach clients SRT positions to use on their own to supplement gains made during sessions.
Benefits of Structural Relief Therapy
SRT has been used successfully to ease pain in various regions of the body, including the head, neck, back, hip, knee, lower leg, and foot. The approach can also treat sciatic pain and the discomfort associated with conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, fibromyalgia, and whiplash.
Other benefits of SRT include:
- Reduced muscle spasms
- Increased range of motion and flexibility, improved posture
- Improved blood flow to the affected region
- Relief of inflammation, stiffness, joint swelling
- Improved posture
Structural Relief Therapy Precautions
SRT relieves pain in a gentle way and is less invasive than deep tissue massage. There is no rubbing or pulling of body tissue and no application of deep pressure, techniques that can cause additional pain and stress for clients.
Countryman cautions that SRT should be used sparingly with clients who have chronic illnesses or poor health. People coping with some types of chronic illness and/or health conditions may find that this type of massage may exacerbate their symptoms in some cases, as their body tissues might have difficulty handling the release of trapped inflammation.
- Countryman, T. (2009). Structural relief therapy, an alternative to ‘search and destroy.’ Retrieved from http://structuralrelieftherapy.com/uploads/assets/search_destroy.pdf
- Countryman, T. (2016). How to use structural relief therapy to help your clients. Retrieved from https://www.massagemag.com/how-to-structural-relief-therapy-to-help-your-clients-40355/
- Countryman, T. (n.d.). How I found massage therapy. Retrieved from http://www.ncbtmb.org/spotlight/taya-countryman
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