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Massage Today
March, 2014, Vol. 14, Issue 03

The Tissue Density Grading Scale: A Communication Tool

By Linda LePelley, RN, NMT

Most of my years of clinical work as a nurse massage therapist have been focused on exploring the density of tissues. I've consistently observed that the client's areas of subjective pain are closely associated with an objective increase in tissue density (TD) and, when that elevated TD is reduced or restored, the pain is resolved.

Several therapists have contacted me since I began writing about elevated TD, to let me know that they have experienced the same phenomenon, and appreciate that I have introduced and described it. More of the relationship between elevated TD and pain is discussed in "Tissue Density's Relationship to Pain and Dysfunction" (Massage Today, April, 2012).

In the course of treating musculoskeletal pain, a therapist needs to document the care that has been given for the purpose of assessing the efficacy of the treatment provided, and for sharing that information with the client and others, such as the referring physician/therapist; other members of the health care team; or for insurance reimbursement purposes. While it is not definitive, I've developed the Tissue Density Grading Scale to be that practical communication tool. Regardless of the treatment modality utilized, TD grading is a useful way to compare treatments and assess their effectiveness.

Tissue Density Grading Scale

Grade 0 (Yellow) = Tissue is flaccid, hangs from attachments and has little to no resistance to gravity.
Grade 1 (Green) = Tissue is toned yet easily malleable.
Grade 2 (Blue) = Tissue is firm, tender if pressed into; muscles may appear and feel as if they are bound together as one.
Grade 3 (Red) = Grade 3 TD is tight, rubbery and is strongly resistant to mobilization.
Grade 4 (Brown) = Grade 4 TD is hardened, rigid and immobile.

massage - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Grade 0 (Yellow) – depicts advanced wrinkling; the hanging tissues found on some chins and underarms and the sagging, drooping tissues often noted on persons who have quickly lost a great deal of weight. It is important to note that grade 0 tissues are often found superficially over an area of elevated TD in the 2 to 3 range. It may feel as if the loose tissues have separated from deeper tissues, which in turn are becoming condensed. The deeper tissues are usually tender with moderate palpation, with easily definable borders.

Grade 1 (Green) – TD represents normal, healthy tissue that is pain-free, well hydrated and well perfused. It is easy to palpate, identify and differentiate muscles, bones, ligaments and other connective tissue. Usually warm to the touch with no pitting when palpated.

Grade 2 (Blue) – TD indicates elevated tissue density. Upon palpation you will find the tissues tight, sometimes hardened and resistant to mobilization. They do not relax easily and are reported to be uncomfortable, even painful. Clients often describe Grade TD 2 tissue as being tight, sore, achy, heavy, stiff and/or painful. However, grade 2 TD can be latent, without complaint of pain or dysfunction until activated by injury, use or palpation. The borders of the affected areas are easy to determine.

Grade 3 (Red) – TD can be found in small strands and bands interspersed with other grades of TD, causing much pain and dysfunction, such as that of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis. Larger areas are often found in a wide variety of conditions, such as Restless Leg Syndrome, MS, Parkinson's, and Fibromyalgia. Grade 3 TD feels firm and rubbery, and is resistant to mobilization.

Grade 4 (Brown) – TD is associated with profound dysfunction, for example, curvatures and contractures such as those experienced by persons who are bedridden or extremely sedentary for long periods of time. Painful knots and lumps, and the “bony overgrowth” found in arthritic conditions are composed of grade 4 TD. It is hardened and often believed to be composed of bone.

It is important to note that although an area of tissue may be palpably denser than that of its surroundings, it may not be tender or painful. However, an area or spot that hurts will exhibit elevated TD. By softening hardened tissues and restoring those to a more malleable, mobile, smooth condition, nerves and nerve endings are no longer being painfully trapped and tugged. Normal tissues do not hurt when squeezed or pressed into. When you focus on the clients' directions to pain locations and the firmness of the involved tissues, you can locate, successfully treat and document most musculoskeletal pain complaints.

Along with the graduated number scale to differentiate tissue densities, each level is also color coded to provide for the creation of a more graphic representation, if desired. Because a TD Grade is objective, you (the therapist) should make your own determination of TD. You should have the client direct you to the area that is most uncomfortable or painful, and document their description of the pain quality and level, but grade TD based only on what you actually feel. If you can feel a lump, ridge or textural change, so can anyone else who is looking for it.

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


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