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Fact Or Friction?

I am a huge fan of friction. I wasn’t when I was in massage school. It took a lot of effort and made me grumpy… fast. But the more I age as a hands on therapist - the wiser I get about how effective it really is. PLUS the more I appreciate how good it feels on my own achy muscles and bones. I do think a quality, weighted hot pad is a convenient alternative. But hands on friction can feel as good as a bowl of popcorn and a good movie. 


Friction works because it generates heat. And while this may be a good enough answer for some of you, I am pretty sure there are a lot of you that want to know more. The scientific version goes something like this: Muscle tissue and connective tissue are comprised of different elements. Muscle fibers are contractile. The actin and myosin filaments that control the length of each sarcomere require ATP and potassium to make a contraction happen. Connective tissue, and fascia - a subcategory of connective tissue, is extensile. It is made up of collagen fibers and chemical bonds that respond to elements like temperature and hydration. 


So when a muscle contracts repeatedly and frequently, it generates heat that helps the fascia and connective tissue that hold the muscle to a bone or the surrounding tissues to increase its extensibility so that the muscle can move with more ease. This is a very convenient feature when exercising or doing anything active and you want to increase your ability to go faster, jump higher, or throw farther. The muscles generate the power to move the bones and the energy from that power creates heat that helps the connective tissue, and fascia, elongate. Our bodies are incredible, am I right?


The less scientific version goes like this: When we move more, we become more fluid. And when we are more fluid, we can move with less restraint. And when we are less restrained, there is less pain. The balance between movement and rest is key to good health. But the balance between the tissues that move us and the tissues that connect us is essential. Having one without the other would be like having land without water. They are each important in and of themselves, but it is their interplay that keeps the circle complete, so to speak. They are the yin and yang of soft tissue.


As bodyworkers, we enter the arena when there is a lack of balance - when homeostasis has tipped to one side or the other. When a muscle works too hard, or not hard enough, and when fascia binds, or weakens resulting in a tear, this is when we step in. The reason I think friction is so effective, though, is because, more often than not, it is the connective tissue’s tenacious ability to connect that begins a downward spiral. Muscle tissue rests when we rest. Connective tissue, and fascia, does not. 


So yes, we can do incredible work with muscle tissue. But there is a lot of connective tissue to contend with first. Applying friction, as we have seen when we rub two sticks together, creates heat. This heat, when generated through bodywork, helps those chemical bonds find a little space apart from each other. That space, helps tissues to move around each other with a little more ease. That ease, helps muscles to breathe a little better. That breath, helps so many things. 


Case in point: The Iliotibial Tract. Otherwise known as the IT Band, this dense plank of connective tissue wreaks a lot of havoc. Running from the ASIS and the Iliiac Crest, through the Glute Max and the Tensor Fascia Lata, down the lateral upper leg, crossing over the knee and tacking itself on the upper fibula and upper lateral tibia, the IT Band binds a lot of moving parts together. Most notoriously, it irritates the lateral epicondyle of the femur like your little brother might after consuming too much sugar. But it doesn’t stop there. A tight IT Band can create hamstring limitations, quadricep restrictions, glute inhibition and, of course, knee and hip dysfunction. 


A little friction here can go a long way. With your client supine on the table, and standing on one side of the table, bring their opposite leg across the leg that is closest to you. Brace their lower leg between your forearm and your side so that you are standing between their lower leg and the table. Use your free hand here to get that heat going. With a palm, a soft fist, or whatever tool you prefer, begin to friction at the lateral knee and move up into the breadth of the IT Band. Have your client extend their knee a little and then relax it into your grasp as you work. This external work combined with internal movement is the icing on the cake.


Of course you can friction the IT band with both of your client’s legs on the table. But I like this approach because it changes things up. In much the same way that friction changes things up. Ultimately, we have an endless supply of techniques at our fingertips that continue to help our clients and their soft tissue. But if you don’t use it because you aren’t a fan, as I was back in the day, I recommend dusting it off and giving it a second try. Because the fact of the matter is that friction is awesome.


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