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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.
The 10-minute release
Where: I place a lacrosse ball between my back and the kitchen wall. If you prefer, you can instead lie down and place the ball between your back and the floor.
To start: Use your lacrosse or tennis ball by positioning it between your back and a wall or the floor. Typing all day tends to leave me with a sore back and neck. So each night, I set a timer for 10 minutes, and I get to massaging.
How to massage: Move the ball with your body until it hits a spot that’s especially tender. Focus on that tender spot by pressing the ball into it. You can hold still and push against it, or slowly roll it around the sore area.
Yes, it will hurt some, but it shouldn’t hurt so badly that you cry out in pain or experience distress. Adjust the pressure as needed — and don’t forget to keep breathing!
After a few minutes of focused pressure, you should feel a release. Move on to the next trigger point, then rinse and repeat. Other areas that respond well to tennis/lacrosse ball massage are the buttocks and back of the legs.
Gentle cane massage
Where: Because canes are so portable, you can use these on the go for quick relief (they travel well — keep one in your car!).
To start: Massage canes are especially helpful in areas that are either too difficult to reach with a lacrosse ball, or too sensitive for that much pressure. Identify these more sensitive triggers.
I personally love to use my canes on my trapezius muscles. My tender chest muscles also benefit from the gentler pressure of the short nubs at the end of this cane.
How to massage: Simply “dig” into these areas with the cane, applying as much pressure as feels doable for you, and then hold until you feel the release.
Foam rolling bliss
Where: Foam rollers are used on the floor. A great back release is to lie down so your spine is parallel with the foam roller.
Foam rollers allow you to massage a wider area. The pressure is generally less intense since it’s spread out. The wider area makes it less effective at working out trigger points, which need the focus of a ball or cane.
To start: Foam rolling is best for sore, aching muscles. I recommend a soft foam roller if you’re new to foam rolling or have hypermobile joints prone to subluxing.
For sore calves and thighs, I use this foam roller. I like it because it has multiple textures, and can even be used under my calves while lying in bed. Try out multiple foam densities and textures to find which roller(s) will be right for you.
How to massage: Relax your shoulders and take deep breaths as you lie on the roller for several minutes. Your back muscles will relax, your chest will open up, and you’ll get a few minutes of relaxing without much effort.
- 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.