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Rolfing: What is it, and can it help with chronic back pain?

Categories: Other Physical Injuries

By Melissa D. Carter. Posted on .

“Rolfing” is a massage therapy that involves manipulation of the body and movement education.  Founded by Ida Rolf, a biochemist over 70 years ago in New York City, the Rolfing Institute explains that Rolfing is a “holistic system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education that organizes the whole body in gravity.”   Rolf theorized that, while skeletal muscles often work in opposing pairs in concert, with one contracting and the other relaxing, the fascia, or connective tissue, often get bound up and restrict opposing muscles from functioning.  When an injury occurs, Rolf theorized, the fascia tightens around that injury, somewhat like a cast or band-aid. Even after the injury heals, the fascia stays in that rigid position, often causing chronic pain and discomfort. Rolf sought to separate the fibers of the jumbled fascia manually, to loosen them and allow effective movement.

The theory was born out of many modalities, including osteopathic medicine, chiropractic medicine and yoga.  The main premise is that the body must be secure so that it can use gravity for support, to then allow each segment of the body to relate properly to the other. 

 The Rolfing massage technique involves an attempt to reposition tissues under the skin by manipulating connective tissue, keeping in mind the body’s relationship to gravity.   Balancing the entire body and increasing movement, Rolfing is intended to resolve chronic problems, such as pain and tightness, by releasing tension patterns and realigning the legs, torso, shoulders, arms and head.

The “Rolfer” and the patient must work together to change the body’s form, balance and function.  The Rolfer slowly lengthens the body’s fascia and repositions it by manipulating the connective tissue.  Many patients praise Rolfing for restoring mobility where years of tension and holding once hindered joints.

Long ignored as a fringe therapy, Rolfing has recently been getting serious attention from researchers. The National Institutes of Health provided a grant for the First International Fascia Research Congress in 2007, which brought together therapists, scientists, and doctors.

More recently, Eric Jacobson, a research associate at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School’s department of global health and social medicine, received an NIH grant to study the therapy’s effect on chronic low back pain, which affects 16 million American adults. Other research has shown the therapy reduces the pain of fibromyalgia.

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