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Massage Today
July, 2007, Vol. 07, Issue 07

Successfully Treating Cervical Trauma Using Deep-Tissue Techniques


Jim, a 35-year-old accountant, suffered a cervical flexion/extension injury in an auto accident. After chiropractic treatment had exhausted his personal injury protection (PIP) coverage, his chiropractor released him saying he had reached maximum medical improvement.

However, he still was having severe neck and shoulder pain with headaches. He sought treatment from several massage therapists whose ads stated that they did deep tissue, therapeutic massage. He was totally unimpressed both by the amount of pain he endured during his sessions and the lack of improvement. A friend referred him to our clinic with the reassurance that not all deep-tissue therapy had to be a painful experience and he would see results.

During Jim's initial session, structural evaluation revealed a forward head posture with a reversed curvature of his neck. On his intake form he marked the back of the neck and top of the shoulders as primary pain areas. The therapist explained to him that his treatment would address the pectoralis region and anterior neck first, and then the painful areas in the back of his neck and the top of his shoulders. Jim was amazed because previous therapists had only concentrated on the areas of pain. As the treatment proceeded, he was pleasantly surprised that this therapy was very tolerable even though some of the strokes were deeper than previous work, and he was feeling better.

The important thing to learn from this is that it is crucial to have a structurally-based strategy for applying therapeutic massage techniques. Deep tissue therapy, whether it is myofascial release, myofascial unwinding, myofascial stretching, or deep trigger-point release, will result in significant long-term structural changes. If these releases and changes do not contribute to structural balance and normalization of structural function, then they are likely to contribute to structural distortion patterns and structural dysfunction, which tend to create worsening conditions and increased client pain.

In Jim's case, the tension was released from the musculature of the anterior shoulder and neck first, allowing the shoulders and neck to move back facilitating the initial structural improvement. As the shoulders and neck released, the spasms in the back of the neck and top of the shoulders began releasing even before treatment was ever applied to those areas. If therapy had been applied to the primary areas of pain in the back of the neck and top of the shoulders first, the tightened musculature in the anterior neck and pectoralis muscles would have pulled the head and shoulders forward even further as the posterior musculature was released. The structure would have worsened by the increased misalignment resulting in increased pain. Thus, it is very important for therapists doing therapeutic massage to always be aware of the structural consequences and ramifications of releasing fascia, adhesions and shortened muscles. To address Jim's complaint regarding the pain he experienced with other deep-tissue work, a three-step approach to working deep tissue was used.

The first step is the application of milking strokes to release the fluids, toxins and ischemia, which reduces the inflammation and clears some trigger points. Tissues swollen with toxins, fluid and inflammation are extremely sensitive and painful to touch, so light, slow, gentle strokes are used. This results in a decreased sensitivity of the tissues, which allows palpation of the tissues without major discomfort and prepares the tissues for deeper work.

The second step is the application of directed myofascial unwinding strokes to release the holding pattern of fascia in the structural dysfunction and to further clear trigger points. These strokes are very slow. You sink in until you feel the resistance in the tissue and then hold constant, steady pressure until the resistance starts to melt. Follow the tissue as it melts, keeping the pressure slow, steady and constant. You will feel many layers softening and releasing at a deeper level than where the actual pressure is. The deeper you go, the slower you go. These strokes released most of the myofascial holding pattern that held the structural distortion within Jim's neck and shoulders preparing this area for more specific deep work to release scars, adhesions and tightened individual fibers.

The third step is the application of individual fiber strokes to release deep fascia, adhesions, scar tissue and atrophied tissues locked in the soft tissue. Many of these deep adhesions, along with scar tissue, entrap nerves and lock the structure into distortion. These are deep, specific strokes, moving very slowly, staying within pain tolerance levels.

This three step approach can be used in any area of the body and will allow you to apply effective, deep therapeutic massage while staying within your clients' pain tolerance. Jim stated that, even though these strokes appeared to release tissues more deeply than previous deep-tissue treatments, he did not have the discomfort that he experienced in those treatments and his pain disappeared after just a few sessions.

Click here for more information about Don McCann, MA, LMT, LMHC, CSETT.


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