Whenever I’m giving a massage I get the question, “How come if I hurt myself in one spot, it begins to hurt in another spot?” Or, in a related question, “How come if I hurt here you’re massaging over there?” In response, I will always tell people “Everything is connected and when muscles get tight they invariably pull on other muscles that are connected.” This is a short explanation of a much larger concept that forms the whole theory of, not only massage, but stretching, physical therapy and even basic reflexes such as the knee jerk response, or walking.
When describing our body we always talk of separate muscles, connective tissues, tendons and ligaments, but in reality all of these tissues can be seen as not separate tissues, but one myofascial system. This system is comprised of muscles which are surrounded, and connected to fascia, which then form the tendons, which then flow into the periosteum (the covering around the bone) from which arise the ligaments, joining to the subsequent periosteum, to the next tendon and so on and so forth. The connective tissue surrounding the muscles and bones is like a continuous sheet of saran wrap throughout the body wrapping all these structures. Just like a plastic pouch where the two sheets of plastic are sealed together at either end, so to does the fascial system surround the muscles and bones then fold and join together in various specific places. In fact these folds and areas of joining tend to run vertically throughout your body from the toes to the head, and from the fingers to the head. Around these folds and places of attachments it is much easier for the muscles and surrounding tissues to become knotted and therefore not move easily. Normally, the fascia and all the muscles have a certain amount of lubrication around them, but when they become stuck and knotted, circulation in the area decreases and the amount of lubrication decreases making the area even more stuck and painful.
These knots are areas where circulation has decreased and toxins have accumulated in the muscles and surrounding tissues. These toxins, such as lactic acid, and various proteins cause the muscle to contract and the tissues to become stuck together. The problem is then aggravated when the nerves running through the myofascial system begin to sned incorrect signals. Normally, nerves continuously send signals to the brain about how tight the muscles are and where the position of these tissues are in space. However, when the tissues become stuck, and the muscles contract for a long period of time the nerves begin to send false signals to the brain. The nerves adapt to the pathological length and tension so the brain begins to think the muscles and tissues are at the correct length and tension when in reality they are too tight and not moving correctly.
All the techniques we have in massage are used to affect this whole myofascial system. Massage, frees up the areas where tissues are stuck, circulates out the toxins accumulating in the area and resets the nerves so the brain can signal the muscle to relax and allow the tissues to move freely again. Where these techniques are applied are usually along the folded and attached areas within the myofascial system where one area of stuck tissue has pulled on another, and another and therefore restricted the whole system. So, next time you pull a muscle or have a painful “knot” in your body and that whole side of your body begins to hurt understand that everything is truly connected. Then, in order to work out the problem use massage, stretching and physical therapy to affect every link in the myofascial chain that is painful.
Whenever people ask me what I do, I always tell them I practice acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Inevitably they know what acupuncture is but are often unsure as to what Chinese Medicine is. Given that most people don’t know that acupuncture is only one part of Chinese Medicine, and aren’t familiar with Chinese Medicine as a whole, I figured I’d give a brief explanation as to what this type of medicine is.
Chinese Medicine has five main branches of treatment modalities, acupuncture, massage (tui na the Chinese form of massage), herbal medicine, nutrition and exercise. Acupuncture also includes more than the use of hair-thin needles to stimulate points throughout the body, and includes the techniques of moxibustion, gua sha, or scraping, and cupping. In fact the Chinese word for acupuncture is zhen jiu which literally translates to acupuncture-moxibustion. Most people in the West, when they think of the acupuncture system only picture the channels, or meridians, and acupuncture points that and don’t realize that Chinese Medicine is in fact a whole system of medicine with its own unique physiology and diagnostic system. This is why it takes 3-4 years of graduate level education, just like in traditional Western Medical education, to learn how to properly treat someone using these techniques. First, we have to learn the basic ways in which the body functions, then we have to learn the ways in which those functions become diseased, and finally we have to learn how to treat them. Not only that, but we learn this from both a Western and Chinese viewpoint.
For example, from the view of Chinese Medicine everything, and everybody, has a balance of yin and yang. Yin qualities are all the cooling, moistening, physical, substantial, nutritive qualities, whereas yang are all the heating, warming, energetic, moving, metabolizing aspects. Everyone must maintain this balance of yin and yang, because if either becomes more or less than the other disease will result.
Yin and yang can further be subdivided into the five elements. The elements correspond to the specific functions each organ must carry out in the body and the various processes which take place not only through the day but throughout our lives as well. The word “element” in Chinese is translated from the word xing, which actually translates better to a fundamental process and not a static thing. For example, the word xing is used for pedestrian as well. If any one of these “elements” is not balanced with the rest than these fundamental processes in the body break down and disease will result. To connect everything further, the elements, the organs and the yin yang balance is all tied in through an energetic flow within channels, or meridians. There are twelve main meridians that distribute all the energy and various substances through the body. Just like yin and yang and the five elements if any of these is not balanced with the rest, or if any become blocked than disease results.
Overall, these processes and systems are connected in very specific ways. They are affected by the food we eat, the activities we do and the environment around us. It is very important to know exactly what system is affected by what and how to arrive at a proper diagnosis to figure out the best treatment to bring it all back into balance. This treatment at its core is preventative. Therefore it is always our goal to use the tools available to us to prevent disease before it becomes a bigger problem. This is why even though we will often use acupuncture, herbs and/or massage, nutrition and exercise are in reality the most profound treatments. Nutrition and exercise are the simplest and easiest ways that you can prevent disease on a daily basis. This is reflected in a basic tenant of Chinese Herbal Medicine medicinals that can be taken on a daily basis with no risk of side effect, i.e. food, are considered the most superior forms of medicine, as opposed to the medicinals consumed for a short period of time because they have a high risk of side effects are considered the most inferior forms of medicine. This idea of food as medicine is very important in Chinese Medicine and every person should have a basic understanding of what they should or should not eat depending on who they are as a person and what type of illness may be affecting them. Exercise is also very important in China where, even in the largest cities, there are many beautiful parks with walking paths, there are parks with outdoor exercise equipment on many corners and every morning you will see people doing exercises such as qi gong and tai qi throughout the parks and in their homes. Ultimately, when you take care of your body on a daily basis with nutrition and exercise you may only need to see a practitioner for massage, acupuncture and/or herbs once in a while.