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The Biomechanics of Massage: How Massage Therapy Changes the Tonicity of Muscles

bi·o·me·chan·ics - The study of the action of external and internal forces on the living body.The Biomechanics of Massage:
How Massage Therapy Changes the Tonicity of Muscles
Massage is science.  Want to know more?  Read all of our articles.Any muscle in the body can be tight and can develop trigger points.  The most common are the levator scapula and upper trapezius.Many people know that massage helps muscles relax, but few likely understand why.  Massage is a science as well as an art. 

Muscle tone is usually thought of in terms of fitness but really, tonicity refers to the level of tightness or flacidity.  Overuse can cause a muscle to be painfully tight while underuse can cause stiffening and shortening.  Optimal tonicity is where muscles are able to return to a lengthened resting state after contraction and massage therapy can help.  Massage affects muscles is specific, verifyable ways and it really isn't magic, although it might feel like magic when your pain is gone and you are thanking your wonderful therapist.  If you are unfamiliar with some of the terms here (trigger points and fascia) please see my articles, "Myofascial Massage for the Sports Minded," and "The Pain Spasm Wheel," on my blog.

Reversal of Ischemia

Muscles that have restricted blood supply can become tight and painful.  It creates the perfect environment for trigger points to form.Muscles that have restricted blood supply can become tight and painful.  It creates the perfect environment for trigger points to form.When a muscle is in a contracture (a type of involuntary spasm) for a length of time, it can become tight and ischemic.  Ischemia is a state in which blood delivery to muscle fibers is in short supply.

The best way to illustrate is with an example.  Think of sweet corn.  The ear of corn is wrapped in a relatively healthy-looking husk when in the grocery store - still green, supple and almost moist.  You take the husk off and throw it away before you cook the corn.

If you were to take that husk and put it on your counter top for a week or two, what would happen?  It would dry up and get brown.  It would shrink and shrivel like in the picture above.  Muscles don't react quite that badly to a lessened blood supply, but they do suffer.  Blood carries important nutrients and oxygen.  Plus, blood brings little garbage men to take away wastes.  When wastes are left in muscle fibers rather than taken away by a steady stream of blood, they gather to create a noxious environment.  Wastes can cause trigger points to form and they can irritate nerves.  Therefore, muscles can become tight and painful, just because of waste build-up.

The kneading action of massage brings a flood of blood that hydrates and softens muscle fibers which can restore health and function.If you were to put that dried-up husk into a bowl of fresh water, what would happen?  It would likely start to hydrate and expand.  It would not come back to life of course, but it would change its shape and size.  In a similar way, massage helps muscles to improve by lengthening and broadening fibers.  Part of it is the manual manipulation itself, like kneading bread dough.  But much of it is the critical action of bringing blood to the area through the pressure which is sort of like bringing gasoline to the engine of your car when you press the accelerator with your foot.  Blood floods in which hydrates the fibers, allowing the muscle to relax.

Relaxation Response Signal

The body is replete with mechanoreceptors that send messages to the brain about tension, pressure and displacement.I was once told by a chiropractor that my first rib was high (out of place).  She used a gun-like apparatus called an activator.  A little bar of steel shot out and slammed into my rib.  It was more like a tap and it did not hurt at all.  I laughed and said, "Do you really think that moved my rib?  I don't feel any difference."  She replied, "Yes,  It sent a message to your brain telling it to re-position your rib back down to where it is supposed to be."  The same communication happens with muscles.  When a muscle is tight or put in a shortened position for a long time, the brain can begin to believe that the muscle is supposed to be tight and supposed to be short.  The brain can literally reset the tonicity and length of that muscle so that it stays that way permanently.
The brain can respond with a relaxation response signal when triggered by massage therapy.
The good news is that just like that activator, manually pressing on a muscle can send a message to the brain stating, "We want this muscle to relax."  If the brain interprets the message properly, it will relax the muscle and reset it to its normal, longer length after it has been lengthened by massage.  This won't necessarily happen right away, however.  Tight muscles can take a long time to relent.  You will likely need multiple sessions depending on the degree of tightness.  Plus, there are multiple layers of muscle to get through.  The body and brain can eventually learn and remember with continued massage.  People who get frequent bodywork typically find that their muscles loosen soon after the therapist starts working.  Their muscles have been trained to respond to massage quickly.

Trigger Point Release and Fascial Lengthening

The sternoclediomastoid muscle can house several trigger points causing headaches and other pain in the areas shown here in red.  Release them with trigger point therapy.As much as tight muscles can encourage trigger point formation, trigger points keep muscles perpetually tight.  It's like a feedback loop that keeps repeating.  When the trigger point is released or dissolved, the muscle will be allowed to relax.  Some trigger points are so powerful that they can be responsible for creating what is called "satellite" trigger points in other muscles.  So not only do they cause pain in their own referral zones (see the red patterning) but they can cause other muscles to be tight through neural pathways and fascial connections.  Sometimes when these "key" trigger points are released, satellite trigger points are released simultaneously without the therapist ever knowing it.  This is why it is so important that a therapist work thoroughly and not just where it hurts.  The SCM muscle in particular is known for housing key trigger points.

Myofascial release therapy can help to loosen and lengthen fascia which can then release muscles that have been bound up in adhesions and kept dysfunctional.Along the same lines, tight fascia can keep muscles perpetually tight.  Fascia that has been put in a shortened position for a too long (like the hips sitting in forward flexion at a desk all day) can affect the tone of associated muscle fibers.  The fascia can tug at, bunch up with and adhere to muscle that it touches.  Also, when fascia arranges itself into a jumbled formation in an overworked area such as your upper shoulder blade and begins to harden, then you may find what is known as a "knot" formed there.  These painful areas are adhered fascia (essentially scar tissue) compromising the length, function and tension of the muscle fibers beneath.

Lengthening fascia, breaking up fascial adhesions and releasing trigger points all contribute to muscles being better able to respond to massage and therefore experience change in tonicity.

Ask your therapist how often she recommends that you have a massage.  The answer will depend on what symptoms your tight muscles are exhibiting and what problems they are causing.Massage for maintenance is a good idea.  Ask your therapist how often you should have a massage based on your condition. If you can begin to reverse some of the built-up tightness, you may get to a place of preventing it.  Also, remember that the biggest contributor to muscle hyper tonicity (tightness) is repetitive motions such as working at a computer or driving long distances.  If you continue with those patterns, your muscles will likely re-tighten.  But if you can commit to a therapy program and improve upon some of your postural imbalances, there is hope for even the tightest muscles.
Right as Rain MassageEmily Hagen NCTM, CNMT
Certified Neuromuscular Therapist
Right as Rain Massage

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