What Is Soft-Tissue Mobilization Therapy?

What Is Soft-Tissue Mobilization Therapy?


Soft tissue injuries, such as strains and sprains, are common. Soft tissues are different kinds of cells that surround and support your organs and skeletal system. They include your:

Did You Know
Soft tissue injuries are the leading cause of disability in the United States, causing 34 percent of all workplace injuries and illness.
  • skin
  • fat
  • muscles
  • nerves
  • tendons
  • ligaments
  • cartilage
  • fascia
  • synovial membranes
  • blood vessels

Soft-tissue mobilization therapy is used to treat some kinds of soft tissue injuries. It’s a type of manual therapy. Some people believe it can help:

  • relax tense muscles
  • reduce scar tissue
  • stretch fascia
  • lengthen fascia

Research on mobilization therapy is limited.

What are soft tissue injuries?

Soft tissue injury is an umbrella term. It covers any type of injury to your soft tissues. Common types include:

  • sprains
  • strains
  • contusions
  • tendonitis
  • bursitis
  • stress injuries

These injuries usually affect your muscles, tendons, or fascia. Fascia are the connective tissues that surround, connect, or support your:

  • muscles
  • organs
  • bones
  • blood vessels
  • nerves

Soft tissue injuries often occur when your muscles are abnormally tense. Your muscles work by tensing, contracting, and then relaxing. They get shorter when they contract, which moves the part of the skeletal system they’re attached to. If they don’t relax completely, it can lead to problems, including:

  • pain
  • muscle weakness
  • a restricted range of motion
  • misalignment of your skeletal system

Other soft tissue injuries occur due to trauma. For example, you can twist your ankle or pull a tendon in your groin.

What types of injury are treated with mobilization therapy?

Some people believe that mobilization therapy is useful for treating certain problems that can affect your upper and lower extremities, as well as neck and back pain.

Potential problems in your upper extremities include:

  • tennis elbow
  • golf elbow
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • tendinitis of your biceps or rotator cuff
  • a contracture

Potential problems in your lower extremities include:

  • tendinitis of your heel or knee
  • a strain or tear in your quadriceps tendon
  • an ankle or knee sprain
  • shin splints
  • plantar fasciitis
  • Morton’s neuroma
  • hip pain

What does mobilization therapy involve?

Soft-tissue mobilization therapy is used by some:

  • occupational therapists
  • physical therapists
  • massage therapists
  • osteopathic doctors
  • chiropractors

Your therapist will start by performing a physical exam. They’ll identify problem areas and determine your range of motion in the affected joints. Depending on your condition, they may recommend several sessions of mobilization therapy.

During mobilization therapy, your therapist may use a variety of techniques. For example, they may apply gentle pressure and stretch the affected tissue. They may also use ergonomically designed tools. This is called instrument-assisted soft-tissue mobilization.

What does the research say?

Research on soft-tissue mobilization therapy is limited. Most clinical studies have been small or involved only animals. However, many case studies support the use of mobilization therapy in soft-tissue injuries.

In one study, 198 people who had been diagnosed with tennis elbow for at least six weeks were divided into three treatment groups. The people in the first group received mobilization with movement therapy, the people in the second group received corticosteroid injections, and the people in the third group received no treatment. The group that received mobilization with movement treatment saw the most improvement overall.

“Soft-tissue mobilization has been suggested to have an array of benefits. However, most of the claims are not supported by the research,” says physical therapist Shane Hayes, a sports physiotherapist who works with Olympic athletes. “Evidence shows us that you can't break down tissues, release muscles, or change muscle structure.”

“The benefits instead may lie in psychological and neurological mechanisms,” explains Hayes. “The sensation of touch that occurs is the key actually.”

“The sensation or pressure provides a neural input to the brain which subsequently may result in a decrease in . . . neural activity to the muscle.”

The takeaway

Although research is limited, soft-tissue mobilization therapy may provide relief for some people with strains, sprains, or other soft tissue injuries. The first line of treatment for soft tissue injuries is first aid. Follow the acronym RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. In other words, you should do the following:

  • Rest the injured area.
  • Apply a cold pack to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Apply pressure to the injured area, such as by using an elastic wrap.
  • Raise the injured area above your heart when possible.

Ask your doctor about the potential benefits of adding soft-tissue mobilization therapy to your treatment plan.

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