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What I’ve learned isn’t revolutionary or radical: it’s that healing comes through everyday acts of care.
Contrary to popular belief, most healing doesn’t happen at a doctor’s office.
For years, I hoped a doctor would give me the proverbial magic bullet that would eliminate my chronic pain and other symptoms. I’m not sure what I expected: A pill? An injection? A wise and witty saying that puts it all in perspective and makes my body snap out of it?
What I’ve learned isn’t revolutionary or radical: It’s that healing comes through everyday acts of care — from good sleep hygiene to exercise to nourishment of all kinds.
Today I’m going to focus on self-massage for easing chronic pain.
Why self-massage and not the traditional kind, delivered by another person? Well, can you afford a massage every day? Me neither.
As I wrote in my first Life’s a Pain article: Fascia is “a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs.”
Some doctors, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals are starting to focus on treating pain by treating “trigger points,” tender spots that form within the fascia.
Usually painful to touch, trigger points cause muscles to tighten and strain, and can cause referred pain all over the body. The pain caused by trigger points is now recognized as its own disorder: myofascial pain syndrome.
In self-massage, you focus on releasing these trigger points by applying direct or indirect pressure to trigger points. If done consistently, myofascial release techniques can ease muscle pain over time.
So how do you start? You’re going to need at least one tool to assist you. Why don’t I recommend using your own hands? For one, it’s unrealistic: Even the most hypermobile person in history can’t comfortably reach every inch of their own body.
But the main reason I don’t recommend using your hands is because massage is labor-intensive. If you’re already dealing with chronic pain, you’re likely to worsen it using your hands. The amount of strength needed to massage out trigger points can quickly strain your shoulders or wrists. I don’t want you to get hurt in the pursuit of hurting less.
So let’s talk about what equipment you should use, where to get it, and how to use it.
A simple tennis ball or lacrosse ball makes for a powerful yet inexpensive massage tool. I spend 10 minutes a day massaging my back with a lacrosse ball. Tennis balls provide gentler pressure, which is good for beginners. Lacrosse balls are firmer, enabling deeper, more intense relief.
Once you have a tool to try, let’s get to eliminating those trigger points. If you want an in-depth background on trigger points, I like “The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.” I learned a ton about myofascial pain from that workbook, including diagrams of the most common places trigger points form.
But the cool part of self-massage is it’s fairly intuitive. Yes, I appreciated that workbook teaching me more about my fascia and why it causes pain. But most of my learning has come by doing!
In a nutshell, self-massage is finding a sore spot and applying pressure. That’s it! You already have the skills. Below are some examples of what I’ve found works best for me.
- Don’t massage over bones or your spine.
- Don’t overdo it. Start with a few minutes a day and gradually build up. Too much self-massage can worsen pain.
- Listen to your body, and as you experiment with self-massage, you’ll learn to recognize the sensation of what I like to call “release pain” that occurs when you’re self-massaging effectively.
- Check out YouTube for even more tutorials about foam rolling and self-massage.
Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer-day, she’s hiking with her corgi, Vincent. She lives in Oakland. Learn more about her on her website.