How To Release Knots In Your Back

Over the years as a Massage Therapist, the primary complaint of most of my clients was knots in their back; those aching, aggravating, tight spots that just never seem to go away. Something many of you can relate to.

Hours of sitting and working at your desk is an invitation for those irritating spots of tension to take up residence in your neck, shoulders and back. Unfortunately, some workouts can do the same.

I encourage my Pilates clients to get massages on a regular basis to help relieve muscle tension and release tight fascia - something everyone can benefit from. In fact, since I am still a Licensed Massage Therapist, I incorporate mini-massages into my private Pilates classes, focusing on tight muscles that need to be released, then stretched.  

I'm also a big supporter of massages for the additional health benefits such as increased circulation, improved lymphatic function, stress relief, injury prevention...this list could go on but that's all for another post.

If you're stuck with an achey knot in your back and don't have time for a massage here's a trick you can try: 

Tennis Ball Massage

I use this trick throughout the week to fight off the bundles of tension that live beneath my shoulder blades (teaching is not always easy on the body).

How To:

1. Lie on the floor and place a tennis ball between your back and the floor, in the area between your spine and shoulder blade. (Be sure to place it under a muscle, not on a bone or your spine).

2. Let your body weight lean into the ball and roll it up and down (laterally) along the tight muscle/knot in your back. Also try shifting your weight from side to side, moving the tennis ball horizontally.

3. When you feel a point of pressure (a knot) hold the ball in place and relax into it until you feel the knot release. Imagine your muscles 'melting' around the tennis ball. Take long, slow breaths as you do (don't hold your breath) because it may feel quite intense!

You can increase or decrease the depth of the massage by how hard you lean into the ball.

For a less intense version, try leaning against a wall instead of lying on your back.

Travel Tip: Throw a tennis ball in the car on long road trips and use it by placing it between you back and the car seat to release knots while on the road. Or if you're traveling by plane, take a tennis ball with you in your suitcase and roll out your back once you arrive at your destination. 

I hope this trick brings you some relief. Remember, knots may not go away over night...the key is to practice releasing your muscles on a regular basis. 

If you're holding tension in your body day-after-day or sitting/standing with poor posture, the knots will keep coming back. Releasing knots is a short-term 'fix'. The key to making sure the knots don't return, is addressing poor postural patterns, and strengthening weak muscles... which is a primary focus of Pilates!

Smooth Moves: Massage for Your Golf Game

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Bodywork and Your Golf Game

By: Michelle Schneider

 You're standing over an easy 3-foot putt on the 18th green, $20 riding on dropping the ball in the cup. And yet all you can think about is that sharp twinge in your lower back, that pesky crick in your neck and the growing tension in your hands--which have a death grip on the putter.

How did this happen? Didn't you take up this game to relax?

"We Type-A personalities all seem to be attracted to golf--then we get out on the course and tense our muscles and stress out," says Marilyn McAffee of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Massage--and her massage therapist Muriel Hattori, in particular--have been godsends, McAffee says. "I consider massage a joy not just for my golf game but for my whole life." McAffee, 63, is a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala who now is president of the Jacksonville, Fla., chapter of the nonprofit World Affairs Councils. She reluctantly admits that her handicap is closer to a 23 than the 19 she once carried. "I tend to work hard, and I tend to play hard. I tense up, grip the club too tightly, swing too hard, punish myself by hitting the ball as hard as I can even though my muscles are tense."

 Hattori works that tension out, loosening McAffee's muscles and allowing her to relax, and to take deep, calming breaths. "So, of course, the ball goes farther because my swing is more effortless."

McAffee is one of a growing number of golfers--especially those who wield their clubs only on the weekend--who have seen how massage can improve not just their game, but their lives.

 "People love this game so much that they just have to play, even though they're hurting," Hattori says. She's one of northern Florida's massage masters, based at the famous Marriott at Sawgrass golf resort in Ponte Vedra, home to the PGA headquarters. "Try to tell a golfer to hang up their clubs and take up chess. No way. They're going to play until their body finally gives out on them."

Hattori--whose client list includes an impressive lineup of pro football players and PGA tour golfers--says her approach to massage is the same no matter who's on the table.

"I have to get to know your body so I can fine-tune it," she says. "The best thing a golfer, or anyone who's in pain, can do is find a massage therapist who they're comfortable with, and one that they can work with on a regular basis. It's the consistency that will give you the best results." 

Golfers routinely report pain in their lower backs and hips, tight hamstrings and stiff necks. "One major cause of injury among the golfers I see at the resort is that they've saved up for months to come play, and they're so eager to get out there, they just start whacking the ball as hard as they can, without warming up," Hattori says. And, many tourists have crammed so much work into the week before their vacation "that they're even more tense and stressed than they normally would be."

Hattori knows that not everyone can afford a massage every week, but that doesn't mean they can't start immediately to improve their flexibility and begin to lessen their chronic pain. 

"Those weekend golfers must get into a daily stretching routine at home," Hattori says. "It is one of the most effective ways to start getting your body in shape. I tell them to stretch for just one minute every morning and every evening--just one minute. While you're brushing your teeth, put one leg at a time up on the counter by the sink and stretch it. You can incorporate stretching into your daily routine without it adding extra time."

This stretching takes the pressure off, Hattori says. "If you tell them they have to stretch 15 minutes twice a day, and they only get 10 minutes in, they feel guilty, or like a failure. But if you tell them they only have to do one minute twice a day, and they end up doing 10, then they feel better about themselves." 

For golfers, Hattori suggests a massage therapist who not only knows your body's specific aches and pains, but who also knows the sport. That way, he or she can design a stretching routine tailored just for you and your game.

"Freddy Couples (14-time PGA tour winner) always had trouble with his back, so I recommended he do a classic cat stretch on a regular basis." (In the cat stretch, you are on your hands and knees and then alternately arch your back, then make it concave.)

Hattori and other massage therapists agree it's also critical to stretch not only at home, but before teeing the ball up on the first hole.

Lynn Teachworth, a massage therapist from Orlando, Fla., whose clients include pro golfers Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak and Ernie Els, says the best approach is to stretch until you feel your muscles are warm, play your round of golf and then stretch again--longer and deeper. That's when you'll get the most benefit from stretching, and there's no risk fatigue will dent your game. "A little stretch before and a lot after -- that's the winning formula," Teachworth says.

If you have a major tournament just around the corner, massage therapists recommend you come in for a tune-up before the big event. Ideally you should get a massage 10 days before, and then again three days before the tournament.

Pre-event massage involves a lot of intense stretching, not gentle, soothing strokes, Hattori says. "Before a game, I'll use strong, aggressive stretching. You leave the soothing massage for afterwards, because then you want your client to feel like they're in la-la land. Beforehand, you don't want la-la land, you want them to be loose and limber but focused."

Hattori says it's important to keep the game in perspective. "The whole idea of golf is to have a good time. That's the secret," she says. "If you feel good physically, it's easier for you to have a good time, and I can help with that. If you go out with the right frame of mind--that you're going to have fun--then you'll relax and play better."

 McAffee agrees. "I can't imagine not having my Muriel massage every two weeks. Sure, it helps me with my golf game, but it also just makes me feel so much healthier. She doesn't just get all the aches and pains out, she takes all the tension away. It's so relaxing that I feel I'm connecting my body with my mind. I'm becoming fully integrated--it's such a wonderful feeling."

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2003.

The 'F' Word You Need To Know : Fascia

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Just beneath your skin lies a complex network of connective tissue called fascia. It helps you move well, stand straight and play hard. Keeping it healthy might be one of the fastest – and most overlooked – ways to improve your health and fitness.

As a Massage Therapist, I find it fascinating that fascia is not something that is talked about or taught in most fitness arenas. Fascia is a stretchy, mesh-like substance that interweaves through and around your musculature, surrounds and supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure like a second skin. It's a key player in the way your body moves, functions and feels. It's a dynamic substance that can change and respond - both in good and bad ways.

Fascia adapts to every move you make — good, bad or indifferent. Over time, a competitive rower, for example, might develop thicker fascia in her back and shoulders to support the repetitive movement of pulling oars. The fascia in the front of the rib cage of your typical desk jockey, on the other hand, may become thick and short to reinforce a habitually caved-in posture. And injuries, even minor ones, often result in fascial “patches” in the muscles that can cause restricted motion, leading to compensations in gait and movement. These might remain long after the injury itself has healed. 

Injured or poorly adapted fascia can start to act like glue, binding to muscles, other fascia, even your ligaments. In a sense, your entire individual life history — exercise habits, injuries, common sitting and sleeping positions — is written in your fascia. Depending on these and other behavioral factors, fascial adhesions can subtly accrue over years and decades, leading to movement inhibition and sometimes chronic pain.

So, think you might have a few kinks in your fascia? In a sense, if you’re already exercising and stretching regularly, you’re ahead of the game. Muscles and fascia are so interwoven that you can’t affect one without affecting the other. 

Nevertheless, standard, static stretching and muscle-isolating exercises, while beneficial in some ways, often have little effect on deeply ingrained fascial tension, especially if, like most people, you spend a large portion of your day sitting down.

If we spend months, years, even decades sitting at a desk and think that a few hours in the gym per week are going to undo all that, we’re probably fooling ourselves. Stretching a muscle with bound-up or poorly adapted fascia is a bit like trying to stretch a knotted bungee cord: You’ll get much better results if you get the knots out first. 

Some of the best methods for untying these knots take a therapeutic approach, like massage, in which a licensed practitioner works with an athlete or client. Other methods have the client participate more actively, moving and stretching him- or herself in fascia-friendly patterns. Massage can be a powerful tool when it comes to increasing the function of your fascia by increasing it's elasticity and restoring balance throughout the entire body. Exercising with proper form and precision cares for the body as a whole - something we now know is imperative to health and well being. Learning how to tap into the power of your fascia could drastically change the way you train, move and most importantly feel.

As a Massage Therapist I am just scratching the surface on how fascia works and why it matters to you, but I encourage you to check out the additional sources listed below to expand your knowledge on this topic.

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Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists By: Thomas Myers

Fascial Fitness: Training in the Neuromyofascial Web