Massage Today Get the Latest News FASTER - View Digital Editions Now!
Massage Today dotted line
dotted line

dotted line
Share |
  Forward PDF Version  
Massage Today
April, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 04

Tissue Density's Relationship to Pain and Dysfunction

By Linda LePelley, RN, NMT

A new client presented with a diagnosis of severe pain in her right arm. She had been seen by several doctors and specialists and undergone a number of tests, including an MRI and a CAT scan.

A neurologist informed her that all of the tests were negative and nothing appeared to be wrong with her arm. He suggested she see a massage therapist to deal with her stress. He also suggested she seek emotional counseling to address her, "exaggerated pain" symptoms. It is not my intention to discuss her medical condition, but to share an example of what so many of us massage therapists often face in the course of our massage careers – not just a hurting client who is seeking relief, but a person experiencing anxiety over whether or not we will even believe their pain is real.

After carefully examining her arm with my fingertips, I could tell her where it was hurting. My client's relief that I believed her was just as palpable as the affected tissues I'd found in her hand, arm, neck and shoulder. Had any of her doctors laid hands on her, and known what to look for, they would also have felt the differences in tissue density. They would have known that something actually was there, something assessable, measurable, documentable and most importantly – something treatable.

Tissue Density (TD), as it pertains to therapeutic massage, is an expression of the compactness and consistency of body tissues. My theory is that musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction increases in direct association with an elevation in TD. This is significant because TD is alterable as massage therapists do it all the time. Muscle "knots", "tight" muscles, and "trigger points" are some examples of elevated TD, as well as firm, swollen areas that may be congested with lymph, or thick, hard areas such as the plantar fascia when it is engaged in plantar fasciitis. Other examples include, but are not limited to, tissue that has become fibrous, nodules, "bony overgrowth" or areas that appear to be nothing but skin over bone, and any joint, ligament, or tendon that "pops" or "twangs" with movement.

My thoughts regarding the etiology of elevated TD involve the lipid-rich components of our extracellular fluids, which I believe are attracted to the bio-polymeric nature of our cartilaginous tissues. This attraction, combined with a variety of dynamic factors, including body heat, compressive force, overuse, injury, hypo-hydration, torsion, sheer force, tensile force, inertia, chemical environment and fluid viscosity may cause the extracellular fluid to accumulate, thicken and eventually precipitate into gelatinous plaque. Over time, I believe that these plaques harden and become mineralized, turning into the rubbery nodules or bone-like overgrowth of arthritic joints, as well as contributing to many other conditions. The plaque may be as thin as a sheet of a single layer of fascia cells or it can form a large area of many tissue layers sandwiched together, such as those found over arthritic hip joints and the thick, tender pads which so often develop at the medial aspect of knees.

We know that studies have shown massage can improve blood pressure. I surmise that the improvement occurs when the massage therapist has facilitated a successful reduction of TD. We work on a client with tight, dense muscles, they get off of our tables relaxed, their muscles have softened, loosened and become much more pliable. Once the heart no longer has to force the blood through constricted vessels trapped within clenched musculature, it stands to reason that this alleviation of compression will result in a reduction of blood pressure and heart rate.

As TD increases, involved nerves, blood vessels and lymphatic pathways will become engulfed, compressed, displaced, congested or a combination of all of the above. Untreated elevated TD has many complications. Consider what might happen to tissues that have become partially isolated from a normal environment where adequate nutrients, hydration and waste removal are available for example, The plantar fascia receives the full brunt of our weight. Add compression, force and any number of other events, such as stepping on a stone, poorly fitting shoes, running, etc. Any of these factors can generate heat in the foot, melting local fat deposits. Force and condensation will have pressed much moisture out of the fascia making re-hydration even more difficult. Nerves and nerve endings get caught up between layers of ligament, aponeuroses and fascia, becoming hot-glued together into a thick, rubbery sheet. It seems likely that, given enough time in a hydrophobic environment, the result would be a loss of elasticity and tissue shrinkage. The affected plantar fascia must be warmed up with movement and painfully forced to stretch back out, bringing a measure of relief, but after a period of rest and cooling the pain cycle starts all over again when attempting to walk. Until the TD is properly restored, nerves trapped in the dense tissue matrix are going to suffer with every step.

Done correctly, TDRM is a highly effective modality whereby the client achieves pain relief and improved mobility. TDRM is a powerful tool for us massage therapists, caring professionals who lay our hands on our clients, quite literally feel their pain, and then do something about it.

Click here for previous articles by Linda LePelley, RN, NMT.


Join the conversation
Comments are encouraged, but you must follow our User Agreement
Keep it civil and stay on topic. No profanity, vulgar, racist or hateful comments or personal attacks. Anyone who chooses to exercise poor judgement will be blocked. By posting your comment, you agree to allow MPA Media the right to republish your name and comment in additional MPA Media publications without any notification or payment.
comments powered by Disqus
dotted line