Nine years ago, Glasgow-based writer Hils Barker had almost given up hope of ever recovering from her repetitive strain injury (RSI)—the "unbearable" pain in her right wrist, arm and shoulder that was preventing her from doing her job.
Several months of physical therapy, wearing a wrist brace, applying ice packs and taking large quantities of prescribed ibuprofen did nothing to alleviate the pain, said 41-year-old Hils, which she likens to "a fire in your body that's spreading and you can't put out."
When it started, the pain was just in her wrist when she typed or used her mouse at her computer, but it gradually became constant and affected her arm, shoulder, neck and back.
"I was having incredible trouble and pain with typing, sitting down, even walking," said Hils. "My whole body had become so stuck and painful."
Hils eventually had to install voice recognition software to enable her to do her job, but it didn't make things much easier.
"It would misunderstand words, and I was correcting all the time," said Hils. "I was at my wits' end."
Hils' mom saw how distressed her daughter was and decided to research a 'cure for RSI' online. She came across a therapy called myofascial release and ended up on the website of Amanda Oswald, a myofascial release practitioner who has clinics in London, Brighton and Leeds in the UK.
Hils felt she had nothing to lose, so she booked an appointment to see Amanda at her London clinic, which was close to Hils' then-home.
Hils' first session with Amanda was a revelation. "It was unlike anything I'd tried before," said Hils. "It was unbelievably satisfying."
A hands-on technique that works on the fascia—the protein-based fibrous tissue that envelopes every muscle, bone, organ, ligament, tendon, nerve and vein in the body—myofascial release involves focused manual pressure and stretching, which can be painful at times. "But it was a good pain," said Hils, "and it was very relaxing."
Hils was surprised that Amanda didn't work on her wrist first—the most painful part of her body. Instead, she concentrated on her neck and shoulders, which is where the problems were originating from, Amanda told Hils. "I felt like someone had needed to do that to my neck and shoulders my whole life," said Hils. "It brought instant relief."
As well as the hands-on work, Hils also received self-care advice, including tips on how to improve her posture, especially while working, and a set of simple stretches and relaxation exercises to do at home, some of them using a 'myofascial release ball,' a small, inflatable plastic ball that can be used all over the body for self-myofascial release.
"I was incredibly stressed, tense and tight when I went to see Amanda," said Hils. "She made me realize how that was affecting my body, and what I could do to fix it."
Feel no pain
After just one 55-minute myofascial release session with Amanda, Hils noticed a significant reduction in her RSI pain. And after six sessions, her pain was gone completely.
Hils was so impressed with the treatment that she decided to go back to Amanda for a different pain disorder she was experiencing called plantar fasciitis—inflammation of the ligament that runs from under the heel along the sole of the foot.
"I was seeing a podiatry specialist but still experiencing extreme pain in my foot and leg," said Hils. "Once I started to see the possibilities of myofascial release, I became really interested in the therapy and fascia in general."
Further sessions with Amanda ultimately resolved Hils' plantar fasciitis, and she was able to throw away the orthotics she'd been wearing for years.
Hils continued to see Amanda on and off for the next few years and noticed a number of other improvements along the way. She stopped getting bladder pain and infections, which she'd been suffering from since the age of five, and her body alignment changed dramatically, becoming straighter, with her hips further forwards.
"It started with the RSI, but what I actually overcame was literally everything," said Hils.
Hils believes the treatment was a success because it's truly holistic, dealing with not just physical symptoms but also the root causes of a condition, which can be both physical and emotional.
"The RSI first developed when I was caring for my critically ill father, who later died," said Hils. "All the stress, worry and grief affected my body. I was so hunched up and tense. Fascia solidifies in response to trauma, whether physical or emotional, and you need to release it."
Now, Hils feels much more aware of her body and posture and the impact her actions and emotions can have on it. "I think if I was in a similar situation again, I wouldn't let it affect me in the same way," she says.
Hils is back to writing again—without the pain or the voice recognition software—and makes sure she takes regular breaks to prevent tension from developing in her body. If she does get "twinges" or feels stressed, she knows the right stretches and relaxation techniques to use for relief. And she still visits Amanda occasionally for a "tune up."
"It's all about awareness," says Hils. "Fascial awareness has helped me so much, not just with pain but also my day-to-day life."
What is myofascial release?
Myofascial release is a holistic hands-on therapy that uses manual pressure and stretching to release physical restrictions in the body.
Instead of manipulating muscles, myofascial release works on the fascia—the web of elastin and collagen fibers that surrounds and separates muscles and other internal organs—which can scar or harden as a result of trauma, inflammation or prolonged poor posture.
According to Amanda Oswald, a leading myofascial release therapist in the UK and author of Living Pain Free: Healing Chronic Pain with Myofascial Release, there are three levels on which myofascial release works:
1) Physical hands-on, to release restrictions in muscle and fascia
2) Physiological, to relax the nervous system and override pain messages
3) Emotional, to help the mind-body release the memories and emotions stored as a result of stress and injury.
Ultimately, the goal is to restore normal function and movement to the body and reduce pain and stiffness. In fact, clinical studies have found the technique to be beneficial for patients with chronic lower back, neck and heel pain.1 And in a review of 10 studies of myofascial release for orthopedic conditions—defined as anything involving the muscles, ligaments and joints—the outcomes were generally positive.2
DIY myofascial release
Amanda Oswald, who has been practicing myofascial release for 10 years, believes that successful therapy is "as much about what people can do for themselves as it is about what the therapist does." Here are some simple fascial stretches you can do at home or work, from her book Living Pain Free (Lotus Publishing, 2017; available on Amazon), which may help ward off RSI and other pain conditions.
Make sure that you hold each stretch for at least 90 to 120 seconds (1½ to 2 minutes)—the time it takes for fascia to start to release. Holding one single
stretch for 2 to 5 minutes will allow additional fascial releases to occur throughout the body.
Neck and arms
• Standing or sitting, slowly take your head to the side, bringing your ear towards your shoulder.
• Allow your arms to hang by your sides and keep your arms and shoulders loose.
• As with all fascial stretches, gently move deeper into the stretch, waiting when you feel barriers and slowly breathing into them to allow deeper release.
• Imagine your opposite arm elongating and stretching away from your neck to create a three-dimensional fascial stretch in a pattern from your fingers to your arm, neck and head.
Beginners: It is a good idea to practice this by looking into a mirror at first, as many people have a tendency to raise their shoulders up as they stretch.
Advanced: To deepen the stretch, place your hand on the side of your head, but do not force it; only use the pressure of your hand as a counterweight.
Neck and back
• Standing or sitting, drop your head forwards onto your chest and turn it so that your nose is pointing towards your armpit.
• As this stretch develops, you will feel the releases moving down your neck, into your shoulder and down your back.
Beginners: As you drop your head forwards, allow it to roll gently from side to side across your chest to help loosen the tissues in your neck before going into the stretch.
Advanced: As you go into the stretch, and if it is comfortable for you, bring your hand up onto the top of your head and apply gentle downward pressure to increase the stretch. Again, do not use your hand to force the stretch.
Arms and hands
• Position yourself in front of a desk or table and make sure you can comfortably touch the edge with your wrists, keeping your arms straight. Keep your
feet on the floor to steady yourself.
• For the first position, straighten your arms and place your fingers on the edge of the desk/table, so that your palms are facing the edge.
• Stretch your arms towards the desk/table until you feel a stretch in the underside of your forearms. Adjust the pressure so that you can remain in a comfortable stretch, and allow this stretch to deepen as the tissues start to relax and release. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed and loose.
• For the second position, turn your hands over and place the backs of your hands against the desk/table. Stretch your arms towards the desk/table until you feel a stretch in the tops of your forearms. Adjust the pressure as above.
Beginners: Just the pressure of the stretches will be enough without leaning into these stretches.
Advanced: As you lean into the stretches, experiment with changing angles and moving your body to feel releases in different areas of your arms and hands. You can also do this stretch while kneeling, with your hands on the floor, or standing, with your hands against a wall.
Note: Anyone who is hypermobile or experiencing whole-body systemic pain should not undertake these stretches.
Useful contacts and resources
To find a myofascial release practitioner near you: