The Theory of Orthopedic Massage, Part 1

By Ben Benjamin, PhD
July 16, 2013

The Theory of Orthopedic Massage, Part 1

By Ben Benjamin, PhD
July 16, 2013

Orthopedic massage is an extension of orthopedic medicine, a field that originated in the early 20th century with the work of Dr. James Cyriax. Dr. Cyriax developed a system of precise methods for assessing and treating soft-tissue injuries that do not require surgery. The term orthopedic massage was first coined by Whitney Lowe, a leading massage therapy educator (and Massage Today columnist). This modality has several distinguishing features that set it apart from other forms of massage. They fall into three major categories: theory, assessment and treatment. Here, we'll focus on the theory, and in part 2, I'll cover assessment and treatment.

Theoretical Principles

To practice orthopedic massage effectively, therapists must possess a thorough background understanding of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and body mechanics. They must also understand a variety of additional core concepts, including five I'll discuss here: adhesive scar tissue, myofascial restrictions, ligament laxity, direct vs. indirect causes of pain and referred pain.

Adhesive Scar Tissue

Many people don't realize that the cause of most chronic pain in muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints is the poor healing and repeated tearing of adhesive scar tissue. A little bit of scar tissue, located in the right places, is a normal part of healing. It acts as the glue holding torn fibers together. But when tissues heal by forming a random, jumbled matrix of adhesions, constant re-tearing and pain usually follow.

When we use an injured part of the body and experience pain, it is often a sign that we are re-tearing malformed scar tissue, which then stimulates the formation of additional scar tissue. The secret of effective therapeutic treatment is breaking this cycle of tearing and re-tearing. In addition to removing any adhesive scar tissue that has already formed, we must prevent the formation of future adhesions by ensuring that healing takes place in the presence of a full range of movement.

Myofascial Restrictions

Every cell, every muscle spindle, every muscle, every tendon and every ligament is wrapped in fascia. Myofascial restrictions result from every injury, as well as from poor posture or movement habits, and they predispose a person to suffering from more pain and injury problems in the future. Therefore, the ability to identify and effectively treat fascial restrictions is important for any orthopedic massage practitioner.

Ligament Laxity

Ligaments are supposed to be tight in order to hold our bones together in the proper alignment and limit movements in directions that would hurt us. There should be a little bit of flexibility in these structures, but not much. When ligaments are abnormally loose, we lose the integrity of our joints. The bones they hold together rock around and make us unstable, making us more vulnerable to injuries. Ligaments may be lax due to hereditary factors; they may become lax suddenly as the result of an accident; or they may distend slowly over time through poor posture and the stretching of old adhesive scar tissue from previous injuries.

When ligament laxity is due to hereditary factors, a skilled practitioner will advise the client to avoid hyperextending their joints, to work on developing and maintaining good skeletal alignment and posture, and to keep their body physically strong. When the laxity is due to adhesive scar tissue resulting from an accident or injury, the therapist will work to locate this tissue and suggest treatment to eliminate or diminish it so that further injury can be avoided. Such treatment might include friction therapy, myofascial work, stretching, fitness training, massage, injection therapy and so forth.

Direct vs. Indirect Causes of Pain

A comprehensive plan of treatment must address not only the direct cause of a client's pain, but also any indirect causes. Direct causes of pain are physical injuries, such as strained fibers of a tendon, an inflammation of the bursa, a disc compressing a nerve and so on. When you relieve that problem, the pain disappears. Indirect causes of pain are the contributing factors that predisposed the person to become injured. For example, an exaggerated kyphosis in the thoracic spine makes it difficult to raise the arm overhead without some strain; the last 15 degrees of this movement occurs in the thorax. In a person with a thoracic kyphosis, this condition might be an indirect cause of a shoulder tendon strain. Similarly, poor knee and foot alignment in a young athlete might be the indirect cause of a sprained ankle. Simply improving the person's alignment would not make the injury go away; however, following successful treatment of the ankle, it would help prevent future injuries from occurring.

Referred Pain

Referred pain is pain felt at a distance from the source — for instance, pain from a neck injury that is felt in the shoulder or all the way from the shoulder to the hand, or pain from a low back injury that is experienced only in the thigh or low leg. We learn from orthopedic medicine that no matter where referred pain originates, it follows four basic guidelines:

  1. Pain refers distally. Injuries generally refer pain from the midline to the periphery, not the other way around. For example, an injury in the shoulder might refer pain to the lower arm, but an injury to the wrist will not refer pain up to the shoulder.
  2. Referred pain does not cross the midline. For example, an injury on the right side of the low back can refer pain into the right buttock and leg, but not into the left buttock and leg. If a client reports pain that travels from one side of the low back to the other, this means there are injuries present on both sides.
  3. Pain is referred within a dermatome. Each spinal nerve innervates a specific region of the body, which is known as a dermatome. Referred pain experienced within one of these dermatomes is sometimes caused by compression of the innervating nerve. However, it's more common for the pain to originate in another area of the dermatome, in an injured muscle, tendon, ligament or section of fascia. Determining whether the referred pain pattern is coming from a damaged nerve or some other soft tissue structure is one of the main tasks of an orthopedic assessment.
  4. The severity of an injury is directly proportional to the distance the pain refers. For example, a severe cervical injury might refer pain to the hand, while a less severe injury might refer pain only to the upper arm.

Referred pain creates confusion for many healthcare practitioners. However, once you learn about the specific patterns in which particular injuries refer pain, the confusion quickly diminishes. For example, the sacrotuberous ligament in the pelvis refers pain down the back of the thigh and calf and into the heel, the gluteus medius muscle refers pain to the lateral calf, and the TP7 ligament (intertransverse ligament at C7) refers pain down one side of the lower neck to the medial border of the scapula.

Together, these five core principles guide both assessment and treatment in an orthopedic massage practice. Stay tuned for my next article, when I'll discuss these topics in detail.