by Teresa Eisenlohr
For those of us who live with chronic pain, we’ve seen doctor after specialist after doctor only to be told that it’s all in our head. I know; I’ve traveled this road, got fed up, and finally figured out that I was going to have to learn what I needed to know in order to find my own healing. That’s how I eventually ended up in massage school and am now sharing what I’ve learned as a licensed massage therapist. What I’ve learned in studying anatomy is that for some of us, muscular pain may really be all in our heads—our brains, that is—because our muscles aren't getting the benefit of the brain's oversight on resting muscle tension.
Within each muscle there are neurological centers called muscle spindles that constantly monitor muscle tension. These spindles are what set our resting or normal muscle tension in a brilliant system of electrical and chemical impulses. They are constantly sending reports up to our brains about what the situation is with each muscle, and the brain sends its orders back to the muscle. If a muscle is too taut (contracted), the brain sends signals to have the muscle spindle/monitor loosen the tension. If it’s too stretched, the brain sends the signal to take up the slack with tighter tension.
The muscle spindle/monitors are very good at their jobs. Sometimes too good. Were we to personify them, we’d name them Irving, give them bad hair cuts, white dress shirts with pocket protectors, and black glasses held together with white tape. Their socks might be sucked down into their shoes. (I know; we’re getting carried away here, but I want you to get how conscientious and anal retentive muscle spindles are.)
Muscle spindles that monitor muscle tension are Type A personalities who can cite all regulations by paragraph section in the policy manual they were given on their first day of employment, which, of course, they memorized. They are alert to any infraction and eager to report it back to the home office. They never go on vacation, and they are always at their post on watch like an overzealous hall monitor. The problem is that that’s about all they can do—monitor and send reports. They cannot think for themselves and lack the oversight that the central nervous system has on the overall situation. It's the central nervous system that determines what the regulations should be. Muscle Spindle Irving is stuck in the muscular basement monitoring tension like someone at a nuclear reactor plant assiduously watches gauges and monitors to make sure his reactor/muscle doesn't melt down or blow sky high. His is a serious job, and he takes it very seriously.
Sometimes the message from the brain can’t get through the tangled mess of reports that our over-zealous muscle spindle/monitor named Irving keeps sending. Our muscles get stuck in bureaucratic snafus, so to speak. This situation can happen when we’re under stress, for instance, when adrenaline and cortisol come in from HQ and tell Irving that our muscles need to be ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice. Ever compliant, Irving is only too happy to tighten up the ship, so to speak. So our muscles tense and become taut.
During long periods of stress, though, the managers don’t get the message from the brain to cut our muscles some slack. They don’t relax. Irving still clings white-knuckled to his monitor, ever vigilant and ready to spring into action. It’s as though the constant release of the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol have rusted the doors that need to open to release the relaxation chemical reactions. Irving either won’t or can’t get the muscle tension to relax, if he’s even getting the message from the central nervous system to lighten up. Consequently, the muscle under his watch stays on alert, taut. Its supple responsiveness becomes concretized, and this becomes our new normal.
This is why outside intervention is necessary. You're not imagining things; you really can't relax your muscles because Irving won't let go. A massage therapist who knows her stuff can override this system by negotiating with Irving and, over time, get our bodies to accept a new, more relaxed and supple muscle tension as normal.
How? Partly by working with these muscles’ managers. When pressed (literally!), muscle spindles like Irving respond in one of two ways. If our systems are not faulty, the manager reads the pressure as threatening the muscular system and sends the report to our nervous system that things are too tight. The brain then sends the order to loosen things up with the release of the appropriate chemicals that relax the muscle. Irving welcomes these chemicals, opens the release valve, and all is good. This is how trigger point therapy works. By pressing the muscle spindles 30-90 seconds, you increase the perceived tension, causing the brain to send the signal to relax the muscle fibers in that area.
But what if our system is faulty and Irving is a testy control freak? Here is where positional release therapy and ortho-bionomy is helpful. If our system is faulty, these muscle-spindle managers are stressed. They are doing the best they can, but it’s not enough. If you lightly hold the area and move the body more into the position in which it is going—in other words, if you help Irving do what he’s already doing—it’s as though the manager feels supported and he can live and let live a little. He quits sending frantic SOS messages to the brain that’s learned to treat them as Chicken Little reports and not respond to them anymore, if they can even get past all the tangled mess Irving has created. With the massage therapist’s intervention, the nervous system starts to calm down so that relaxation chemicals are released and accepted by Irving into the system. It’s as though the muscle spindle/monitor doesn’t feel so alone in trying to hold everything together that he can now welcome the chemicals that open the rusty door to the relaxation room. The special elixir of relaxation chemicals is released. A general cheer arises. Irving starts thinking about buying a Hawaiian shirt and going on vacation. There’s talk of piña coladas with little umbrellas. The muscle relaxes. The fascia surrounding the muscle fiber is also released from its tension at the same time. More oxygen can then flood into the area, bringing nutritional support for the cells. Cellular waste that’s been stuck in the tight tangle of muscle fibers finally gets out of traffic and on to the kidney landfill for processing. This whole process takes 90 seconds or more in just one little area, and that's if Irving trusts you. It can take as much as 15 minutes to get one little muscle to relax.
In a dysfunctional system, if you press too hard, the monitor just keeps doing what dysfunctional folks do in a dysfunctional system: he does the same thing harder and stronger than before. With too much pressure, the muscle may tighten up even more. This is why a strong massage or fascial rolling is ineffective for many in chronic pain and may make matters worse. Yes, there are times when a tight muscle may need to be wrangled into submissive relaxation by waling on it, but generally this just pisses Irving off, and his anal retentiveness kicks in to tighten the tension after he's been forced to relax it temporarily. He gets passive aggressive when we're not looking and tightens things up again with a sly smile that says he's not letting anyone take over his controls, by golly!
Good massage therapists respect Irving’s work. We don’t want to make Irving mad; this is counterproductive. Instead, we work with the neuromuscular system, trusting its brilliance. When a body's system has gone awry, we work our massage therapy magic partly by gently bribing Irving with gifts of Hawaiian shirts and piña colada umbrellas. Generally compliant, Irving then helps instead of hurts. He gets commendations, and you get pain relief.