Soft tissue release is an advanced sports massage technique that is used to assess, stretch, and manage the soft tissues in the body, such as the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. This approach to massage can often facilitate faster healing after an injury.
What Is Soft Tissue Release?
A form of bodywork used to address pain, dysfunction, or injury in the body’s soft tissues, soft tissue release is a fast, effective technique that promotes muscular strength and flexibility after injury. Soft tissues primarily include muscles, tendons, fascia, ligaments, skin, synovial membranes, fat, blood vessels, and nerves. By evaluating and manually manipulating these, massage therapists can provide needed support for the client’s neuromusculoskeletal system.
Within the body’s muscles are fibers that usually alternate neatly with each other and attachment points that connect the muscles to bones and other types of connective tissue. When muscle fibers become tangled or damaged, this can affect the attachment points and cause pain or restrictions in movement.
Stretching, a popular method for relieving pain and tension in the muscles, also helps to correct the alignment of the body and allow the body to optimally. However, in some clients with tight muscles, the affected muscle may not be uniformly tight—only a few fibers may be affected by tension or adhesion. Basic stretching may not be sufficient to lengthen and release these few tangled fibers, and clients may experience only temporary relief from basic stretching.
Soft tissue release targets a specific area of tension within a muscle. Once the initial assessment is complete, the distinct tangled muscle fibers can be isolated and lengthened to provide lasting pain relief. This approach may also be used to isolate and stretch a particular muscle that usually stretches along with a group of other muscles.
Soft tissue release is not limited to tissue manipulation. This technique also encourages communication with the nervous system. By applying rhythmic pressure during stretching, the massage therapist helps reprogram any muscles that may be experiencing dysfunction. This approach further helps eliminate old muscle memory and behavioral patterns that may have been adopted due to muscle trauma. When damaged muscles are helped to return to their optimal state, inflammation and pain usually decrease.
There are three general types of soft tissue release:
- Passive, in which the therapist instigates movement.
- Active, in which the client instigates movement while the therapist assists.
- Weight-bearing, in which the client instigates movement while the therapist assists. This technique helps return muscles to full function.
What Happens in a Soft Tissue Release Session?
Most massage treatments are characterized by the passive state of body tissues as these tissues are handled, stroked, kneaded, and manipulated. In soft tissue release, the tissues are instead held in distinct positions and then moved or lengthened.
This approach makes it easier for a massage therapist to assess the texture, tightness, and movement of the tissues. Practitioners are then often able to identify specific areas in need of treatment, particularly when they are addressing areas with multiple layers of muscle fibers moving in different directions.
During soft tissue release, the massage therapist first applies manual pressure to a muscle to form a temporary false attachment point and then brings the muscle into a pain-free stretch in order to elongate, untangle, and rearrange specific muscle fibers for more efficient function. Applying pressure to the stretch helps correct muscular imbalances in injured or scarred tissues and also works to remedy complex soft tissue dysfunction involving many groups of muscles and holding patterns.
Passive soft tissue release, which can be very relaxing, tends to produce a good release of tension. Passive work is often performed to warm up the affected area before the active therapy is introduced. During active treatment the therapist may apply precisely directed pressure to the affected area and instruct the client to perform a corresponding movement. The combined effect is typically effective for reducing tension, freeing scar tissue, increasing movement, and reducing pain.
Many clients appreciate working along with the therapist when dealing with painful areas since doing so gives them a measure of control in the treatment process. Clients can also learn specific exercises they can perform at home to continue the healing process.
When performed correctly, soft tissue release does not generally increase the level of pain beyond what the body is already experiencing. It is not necessary to be nude during treatment, but practitioners may recommend clients remove some clothing or wear stretchy clothing for comfort and ease of movement.
Benefits of Soft Tissue Release
Soft tissue release was developed as a treatment for Olympic athletes. However, the approach can be adapted to treat any type of muscular injury, sports-related or otherwise. Individuals experiencing compromised motion due to arthritis, being in a wheelchair, or other factors— may also from soft tissue release.
This approach can also be used to address muscular tension and imbalances, restricted joint movement, posture and balance issues, general strain, and other specific issues such as:
- Medial epicondylitis (golfer’s elbow)
- Lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow)
- Chronic pain
- Carpel tunnel syndrome
- Johnson, J. (2009). Soft tissue release. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Johnson, J. (n.d.). Using soft tissue release. Retrieved from http://www.gcmt.org.uk/portals/0/documents/using_soft_tissue_release.pdf
- Massage Therapy 101. (2015). Soft tissue release. Retrieved from http://www.massagetherapy101.com/massage-techniques/soft-tissue.aspx
- Winer, J. (2016, September 21). About soft tissue release (str). Retrieved from https://www.nielasher.com/blogs/video-blog/soft-tissue-release-str