Self Myofascial Release: How Does It Work Exactly?

What Is Self Myofascial Release?

Self myofascial release (SMR) is a form of self-massage that involves using some type of implement or equipment to apply pressure to muscle and fascia, which is the covering that wraps around muscle.  Because our musculoskeletal system is a series of interconnected pieces that includes muscles, tendons, joints, and fascia that are controlled by our nervous system, all of the parts need to be operating together.  With physical activity (or inactivity) and the stresses we place on our body, imbalances can easily occur.  If pieces are out of alignment or not functioning properly, it can lead to pain, loss of function or mobility, and injury.


How Does It Work?

SMR allows you to influence the muscular system’s very important feedback mechanism which includes two important sensory receptors: muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTO).

  • Muscle Spindles:  Muscle spindles are located next to our muscle fibers and send information about changes in fiber length and rate of change back to our central nervous system (CNS). These messages trigger what is known as the myostatic stretch reflex. This reflex causes muscle to shorten and changes the tension of the muscle.
  • Golgi Tendon Organs:  The GTO are located where the muscle becomes tendon.  They provide feedback regarding the tension felt on the muscle, as well as the rate of the tension on the muscle.  If a GTO is stimulated past its threshold, this will limit the muscle spindle activity and decrease tension in the muscle.  This is the body’s way of “turning off” or inhibiting it’s own receptors to protect itself.  By minimizing the tension it is believed that this will decrease pain and allow the muscle to return to its normal length and tension.


Why Do Self Myofascial Release?
Myofascial release is meant to minimize mobility restrictions and improve daily function. It is also used to aid in athletic performance and reduce injuries.  Through the use of massage and applying pressure, soft-tissue can become more adaptable.  Potential benefits of SMR include:

  • Correcting muscle imbalances
  • Improving overall joint mobility
  • Reducing muscle shortening
  • Improving neurological functioning
  • Decreasing muscle soreness
  • Providing stress relief


Should I Do SMR?

Check with your health-care provider before doing SMR.  If you are cleared to start, there are many products sold that can be used to do SMR.  Foam and muscle rollers and balls are commonly used and vary in density. Starting with a lower density will be more comfortable and is recommended if you are new to SMR.  Using your body weight, use your roller to roll/lay over each of the various muscles that you want to attend to for 1-2 minutes.  By applying pressure and rolling over muscles, it will activate the muscle spindles possibly causing increased tightness and discomfort.  Stop rolling and rest on for 30-45 seconds on those areas and tendons that seem to be more painful.   Resting on those particularly sensitive tendons will stimulate the GTO and send the message to get the spindles to relax and reduce muscle tension.  SMR can be done daily if necessary or desired.


Sources: My KIN 810 Metabolic Response to Exercise class in graduate school many years ago –  Thanks Dr. Paganini! and my internship at University of Michigan MedSport.

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