Powerful Ways Rolfing and Structural Integration Can Help With Chronic Pain Management
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
What is Rolfing and how can it help me heal?
Structural Integration (SI), commonly known as Rolfing, is a deep tissue manual therapy that aims to align the body’s structure within the field of gravity. Developed by Ida P. Rolf, Structural Integration systematically addresses your body as a whole. SI has the power to transform the way you experience movement and daily life as your body becomes harmonious with gravity. A SI provider educates your nervous system on how to be in tune with gravity and the world around you.
The process usually follows a specific ten-session sequence of deep tissue work and sensorimotor education. Each session builds upon the previous and has specific structural goals which are achieved by working with the connective tissue, or fascia.
After SI, people often find that as their body comes into greater alignment, aspects of the self may also become more aligned. SI may help promote positive change through easing chronic pain, improving posture, increasing breath capacity, improving energy and increasing body awareness and presence. While this describes some general benefits, the SI process is unique to each person with a wide range of effects and benefits.
What is fascia and what does it have to do with tension and chronic pain management?
Fascia is an intricate web of connective tissues that encases every muscle fiber and muscle itself, as well as every blood vessel, organ, nerve and bone. Through a special goo-like form of fascia it provides shock absorption for your body and lubrication that allows your muscles and joints to move freely.
This ability to move freely can be compromised by injury, sedentary lifestyle, stress and trauma (whether physical or not), and repetitive use patterns. When one area becomes battened down it affects the rest of the web by pulling our structure out of tensegrity (tension with integrity).
Gravity no longer flows through us, it collects and pools in areas creating tension. Our body starts to fight gravity rather than work with it. When this happens, we may start to experience pain and discomfort, compromised breathing, challenged concentration and more.
Luckily, the SI process helps us to get back into tensegrity. In each session, your provider will apply direct pressure, often paired with movement, to release fascial holdings. This allows the body to find health through the re-establishment of balance.
It is currently believed that the techniques of SI stimulate intra-fascial mechanoreceptors (sensory neurons of the muscle nerve), which in turn trigger the nervous system to reduce the tension of the related muscles and fascia. Put another way, SI allows the brain and nervous system to “reboot” areas of the body that are receiving too much electrical stimulation (chronically tight or sore muscles). Once a healthy level of muscle tone is established, the person’s entire structure is free to express a pain-free form.
Why doesn’t SI just focus on the area that hurts?
For someone coming in with shoulder pain, they may find it strange to have other areas of their body focused on. There may even be whole sessions that barely touch the primary area of concern!
Because SI providers have such a deep knowledge of the interconnected fascial web, they understand that the symptoms and the cause are often different. Instead of just focusing on the area of pain, SI addresses the system of tensions that creates the opportunity for pain.
Imagine a house with a crooked roofline. In this case, lurking underneath that crooked roof is a collapsing foundation. If we focus on only what we can see and simply rebuild the roof without addressing the collapsing foundation, we will miss the real root of the issue. The house remains structurally unsound and in a short time the roof will be crooked again. SI takes a similar approach; your symptoms will be both directly and systematically addressed. You’ll get the roof and the foundation!
How can SI help my mood and quality of life when I live with chronic pain?
Pain is a stressor and stress creates muscular tension. The increase in muscular tension can often aggravate underlying pain symptoms, which creates more stress. As you can see, chronic pain can be a cycle of compounding stress and pain that builds with no end in sight. This cycle can also lead to a lower tolerance for one’s daily life, reduced coping skills, anxiety, depression and more.
Thankfully, you can break the cycle through SI. By working with the tissues and the nervous system, SI invites the body to release tension and reduce its stress response. You can begin to feel relaxed and safe in your body again. This starts to create a positive feedback loop that will further support pain reduction and resilience.
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