Myofascial Release and Psychology
I ANTICIPATE in the near future a favorable change in publishing circumstances, one result of which will be that my articles on society and culture will appear in a different venue. A side effect is that here I will be able to devote more attention to a subject that has always interested me, but which I’ve somewhat neglected, namely mind-body integration.
So let me begin with a very specific topic, namely myofascial trigger points (MTPs). Basically these are bundles of tense skeletal muscle fibers — such as in the neck, arms, or legs. They correspond to what in colloquial language have for a long time been called muscle knots, but that term is misleading. Instead of ‘knot’, the word ‘cord’ is a better metaphor. What happens is that bands of adjacent muscle fibers, for various reasons, can all tense up together, producing bands or cords of tense fibers within the larger muscle. If you probe with your fingers into a muscle around an area of such tension, you can actually detect these bands. They’re often associated with pain, and sensitive to the touch. By pressing the area of maximum pain (or applying certain other, gentler massage techniques), it is possible to make the cord relax, so that it is as flaccid as the adjacent muscle tissue.
Sometimes this release is associated with muscle spasms, or even vocalizations (i.e., you want to scream); but as soon as the tension is released you feel a great deal better.
Most recent attention has been on how MTPs cause chronic pain. I’d like to contribute to thinking in this area by mentioning two points I’ve not seen previously mentioned.
The first is that it appears to me that, quite apart from any chronic pain they may involve, MTPs sometimes seem to consume a considerable amount of metabolic energy. They can drain the body of energy and leave one feeling chronically tired. From a kinetic standpoint, the size and location of the MTP would be a relevant factor, so the effect is variable. But to maintain, say, a 1-inch wide band of muscle fibers, several inches long, in a constant state of tension would, it seems, require a considerable amount of ones available energy.
Second, I’ve noticed that trigger point tensions and their release seem to have effects on vision. Specifically, I’ve found that when I release an MTP via self-massage or applied pressure, there is a simultaneous positive change in the quality of my vision. As soon as the muscle tension is released, some area of my peripheral vision which was formerly indistinct, suddenly becomes clear. It’s a quite remarkable phenomenon, but it happens so consistently that I do not doubt its reality, or that other people, upon experimentation, will observe the same thing.
I suspect that associated with the muscle tension is some kind of mental agitation, which disturbs the integrity of visual perception. As to why that may be so, I have two conjectures. One is simply that the chronic tension of a muscle causes agitation in the brain’s electrical activity — producing beta waves, basically. By this view, the muscle tension is causally prior to the mental agitation.
The second possibility is that the mental agitation is causally prior. That is, suppose that for example, due to some psychological trauma, one adopts a posture corresponding to chronic anticipation of being attacked. For instance, one may keep certain leg muscles tight, ready to spring up and flee; to keep the muscles chronically stimulated, one maintains some kind of chronic ‘mentation’ — for example, holding onto some fear, albeit unconsciously. So in this case, the mental movement or agitation (which also produces a decrement in visual clarity) comes first. It is, then, by first letting go of the mental attachment or conflict that the muscle tension is released.
From my own experience it’s not obvious which of these two possibilities (if either) are the case, but I consider the second somewhat more plausible.
Let me add that the improvement in visual quality associated with release of an MTP is no minor thing. It can be very dramatic, almost like a mist suddenly being removed from ones eyes, or a depressed, dismal scene becoming instantly more vibrant. A room that seemed dreary and shadowy suddenly seems sunny. I would assume that a similar improvement also takes place relative to inner perceptions — improved clarity of ones thoughts, feelings, and intuitions — though, of course, that’s somewhat harder to objectively assess.
I should mention that there are some theoretical and practical connections between MTPs and the concept of character-armoring developed by Wilhelm Reich. There are some differences, however. For one thing, Reich talked about muscle tensions generally, but not the specific kind of banding phenomenon seen with MTPs. Another is that Reich, a pupil of Freud, was too narrowly interested in muscle tension as a symptom of sexual repression. The phenomenon is much more complex than that.
In short, I’d encourage everyone to do some reading on MTPs, and to experiment with self-massage and the like. I would just add that, while yoga poses are of course very helpful in keeping skeletal muscles relaxed, self-massage and applied pressure seems to relax MTPs in different ways than yoga asanas, so that the two are complementary.