by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
Chronic pain can be a brutal symptom that significantly limits the ability to complete day-to-day activities for many people with chronic Lyme disease and other chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia and ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). Issues that are transient for a well person — neck pain, backaches, stiff joints, muscle fatigue — can be a regular and unwanted part of life.
Despite best efforts to manage constant discomfort, the nagging pain restricts the normal ease of movement, decreases flexibility, and reduces the range of motion throughout various joints in the body. If you experience chronic pain, there’s no doubt there are times you feel frustrated, out of control, or trapped in a body that’s not cooperating with you.
But there’s one part of the body that typically goes ignored that may hold a critical piece of the puzzle to providing pain relief — or at a minimum, relieve some of its unceasing nature. Called the fascia, it’s an intricate web of tissue that extends throughout your body from head to toe.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at this expansive connective tissue, how it contributes to discomfort, and solutions for working with your fascia to lessen aches and pains.
What Is Fascia, Exactly?
Fascia is situated below the skin and primarily consists of layers of thin connective tissue made up of a matrix of collagen fibers. This connective tissue is multi-functional — it encircles every muscle, every fiber, bone, organ, and blood vessel in the body to hold them in place. A recent, broader definition of fascia includes tendons, ligaments, and other tissues of the muscles and joints as fascial tissue, as well.
Fascia can be classified according to its different layers: superficial, deep, visceral, or parietal.
- Superficial fascia: Located directly under the skin and the uppermost layer of fatty tissue, superficial fascia connects skin to muscles and bones.
- Deep fascia: It encompasses muscles, nerves, bones, and blood vessels, and it contains an ample blood supply and lymphatic channels.
- Visceral fascia: This type of fascia surrounds the body’s main internal organs: The heart, lungs, and abdomen.
- Parietal fascia: This term describes the type of fascia that lines the body cavity and is most prominently found in the pelvis.
Fascia is comprised of numerous nerve endings and pressure receptors, which means it can relay a high degree of sensory information to you. Pain originating from skeletal muscle fascia is called myofascial pain (“myo” means muscle), and it typically stems from adhesions — think scar tissue from surgery, trauma, or prolonged inflammation or muscle knots — in superficial and deep fascia layers.
Adhesions can result from the fascia itself sticking together or adhering to other muscles too strongly. Sometimes, you can even feel a palpable lump or trigger point in an affected muscle.
For example, when your body experiences a bombardment of stress and tension, especially the prolonged stress that comes with the territory of dealing with a chronic illness, the fascia becomes stiff and rigid. Suddenly, the freedom of movement you were once accustomed to becomes fraught with pain, and you might even begin to notice your muscles feel hard and knotted up. These are signs the myofascial tissue has become tight and less elastic.
In contrast, healthy fascia is designed to flex and lengthen with your movements and provide structure and support to the body’s tissues. Although fascia hasn’t yet gained the distinction of an organ in its own right, research suggests it may be part of a larger organ called the human interstitium (fluid-filled spaces between organs and tissues).
To further illustrate how tight, inflexible fascia restricts movement, consider the shirt you’re wearing. If you take your fingers and slightly twist some of the fabric anywhere on the shirt, you’ll notice how the material begins to pull in all sorts of directions.
Fascia is very similar: When an area of tissue like a muscle becomes tense or crinkled up, it tugs on the surrounding fascia, causing mild alterations in structure and movement patterns and potentially leading to pain.
Causes of Myofascial Pain in Chronic Illness
The average person experiences an occasional bout of myofascial pain now and again, but while irritating, it usually isn’t life-altering. In other people, however, myofascial pain can be long-lasting and cause a great degree of discomfort.
For chronically ill people in particular, myofascial pain can run the gamut when it comes to pain levels. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause, some of the more common reasons for its occurrence in people with chronic illnesses include:
- Chronic stress leading to an increased state of muscle tension
- Stealth microbes like borrelia, bartonella, babesia, and mycoplasma, which disrupt the immune system and perpetuate low-grade inflammation
- Reduced capacity to engage in physical activity
- Postural imbalance or spinal misalignment
- Psychological stressors like trauma, depression, and anxiety
- Poor sleep, which inhibits the body’s reparative and regenerative mechanisms
- Nutrient deficiencies like magnesium, B12, and folic acid
It’s important to note that some people develop persistent conditions, such as myofascial pain syndrome or chronic myofascial pain, that aren’t easily alleviated with home treatments and modalities. If this describes you, you might want to consider additional medical and therapeutic interventions, such as a consultation with a pain management specialist or a referral to a physical therapist, so that you don’t have to live in constant pain.
The good news, however, is that a significant portion of myofascial pain can be improved with conservative treatment and therapeutic measures that focus on keeping your tissues as healthy as possible, improving circulation, and freeing up adhesions. Here, we’ll focus on four simple solutions to quell myofascial pain — most of which can be done with very little equipment from the comforts of your home.
4 DIY Solutions to Ease Myofascial Pain
1. Heat Therapy
Heat therapy is a cost-effective way to soothe myofascial pain because it aids in muscle relaxation, boosts circulation, and lessens inflammation. There are several ways to partake in heat therapy, from spot-treating painful areas to full-body heating.
Saunas have long been used throughout the world for their health-promoting qualities. Far infrared saunas (FIR) are the type of sauna most often mentioned among the Lyme disease, chronic illness, and chronic pain communities because they provide dry heat, which is generally better tolerated by patients than the heat from steam saunas. But you may be wondering, is there any science to suggest the use of FIR may improve myofascial pain?
The deep penetrating heat of FIR (up to a few inches beneath skin’s surface) has been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins and other opioid-like chemicals. These are the body’s natural pain-relieving hormones that bind to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce pain, fight inflammation, and support the immune system, according to a review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
If you’re new to using a sauna, start slowly and increase the time to 30 minutes as your body allows. You can begin to experience benefits with as little as five minutes a day.
Generally, infrared saunas can be found at local gyms and spas. But if you’d prefer to make an investment in one for home use, you can choose from a cheaper and moveable option like a portable sauna, or you can pick one that requires installation like a wood sauna. Companies like Sunlighten, Therasage, and even Amazon have a range of infrared products, depending on your budget and available space.
Don’t have access to a sauna? Consider soaking in a warm bath. Though the heat penetrates only a few centimeters, it may still help alleviate muscle tension. With the addition of Epsom salts to your bath, you might notice a heightened sense of muscle relaxation and feelings of calm, both of which mitigate pain, too.
If you have a specific trigger point or area of soreness, a heating pad might be helpful to you. Like a hot bath, the heat penetrates only a few centimeters, but placing a heating pad over a painful, tense area can help loosen up the tissues contributing to the discomfort.
If you like the convenience of a heating pad but want the relief that comes with deep heat penetration, an infrared heating pad might fit the bill for smaller, targeted areas of pain. You’ll get some of the benefits of an infrared sauna — minus the steep price tag.
2. Foam Rolling
Foam rolling is a money-saving form of myofascial release (MFR) that you can do yourself. The pressure of the foam roller over your muscles loosens fascia and breaks up soft-tissue adhesions and scar tissue. Nowadays, foam rollers come in a variety of widths and lengths and are available from online retailers, stores like Target and Walmart, and even health food stores.
To begin rolling, position yourself on the roller and use your bodyweight to roll back and forth over the length of your muscles, pausing when you reach a tender point. You can do just about every major muscle group with your foam roller. Here are a few videos to get you started:
- Foam Rolling Routine with Lauren Roxburgh to Wake Up Your Body by goop
- How to Foam Roll | Full Sequence by Shona Vertue
- Foam Roller for Back Pain and Stiffness by Physical Therapist Exercises
3. Trigger Point Self-Massage
A deep tissue massage can be very therapeutic for myofascial pain, but it’s a modality that might not always be accessible to every patient. One alternative: A trigger point self-massage via your hands or a tool such as TheraCane.
When using your hands, locate the trigger point and massage it for several seconds. Next, press on the point with firm pressure for about 60 seconds. Then, move to the next spot and repeat the process.
If you can’t reach certain areas, a TheraCane can be extremely useful, and it comes with an Owner’s Manual on ways to release knotted muscles. TheraCane works by helping you exert pressure on the trigger points and, using simple mechanics, allows you to hold that pressure for your desired amount with minimal exertion to release tissues.
Yoga is an excellent activity for releasing myofascial tissue because it can be customized for your fitness level or to a certain area of the body. Props, including bolsters, pillows, or a yoga strap, can be used to encourage proper body alignment and posture. And studies suggest it’s effective.
Research in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy studied a group of eight physiotherapists who had been diagnosed with cervical myofascial pain. The participants followed a targeted four-week yoga program involving breathing, mediation, relaxation, and poses.
At the completion of the study, participants noted improvements in such areas as pain, neck range of motion, and strength, among others. Researchers believe the gains were due to yoga’s vast benefits, like increasing strength and flexibility, decreasing stress and tension, and balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Yoga classes are readily available online or in your area. But be sure to let your instructor know ahead of time that you’re dealing with myofascial pain so that they can make the appropriate recommendations on how to best modify your practice for safety and comfort.
The Bottom Line
The self-treatment strategies detailed above can be used alone or together. For example, you might find that yoga followed by a hot bath, or a foam rolling session followed by a trigger point self-massage, can optimize your efforts to keep your fascia healthy.
But be careful not to overdo it. If you attempt to release your fascia too vigorously, you might end up experiencing an increase in soreness for a few days and need to back off.
For best results, combine fascia release work with a comprehensive natural protocol geared toward suppressing microbes and restoring healthy immune function, a nutrient-dense diet to correct nutritional deficiencies, CBD to reduce inflammation, and ample sleep to restore your body and get your pain under control.
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