One of the great things about self-massage is you can do it anywhere at your convenience. I recommend self-massage to most of my clients because it’s a great way to maintain healthy muscles in between appointments. In this article I offer 6 do-it-yourself techniques you can use at home to release tension and maintain a relaxed body and mind (and have fun doing it)!
Having relaxed and supple muscles is the goal. You don’t want your muscles to be too tight or too stretched out, but chances are, you have a little of both! Neither is desirable because both lead to some sort of muscular imbalance or chronic issue. Muscle pain is mostly attributed to the “knots” or tight areas in your muscle tissue. The fancy, massage term for a knot, is trigger point. Trigger points are small, tight areas of unhealthy muscle tissue that eventually cut off their own blood supply. They become tender and painful. You can’t go through life without having trigger points, just as you can’t go through adolescence without having pimples. Trigger points cause pain patterns, poor muscular firing and postural issues.
An example of how trigger points might affect posture is when you have tight or shortened Pectoralis muscles, your shoulders begin to round forward, shortening the resting length of your pecs and stretching the muscles of your back. The lengthened muscles of your back start to ache and develop tight areas of tension due to the muscles being stretched past their normal resting length. In order to release the tension that has built up over time in your back, you must first release the tension in your pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles). Hint: you can work on these trigger points on your own (see below #6).
Tune into your body for a moment and start to notice where you’re holding tension, and where your body feels fluid and at ease. Rate the tension you’re noticing on a scale of 0-10. If your pain is above a 5 or 6 grab one of these handy tools and start taking action today. Experiment with different ideas, and keep an open mind. They might not get rid of all the pain in the first go, but as you practice once a day for at least a week or two, you will start to feel a difference!
Here is a list of ideas for self-massage that you can try in the comfort of your own home.
- Foam Roller – this is a great way to get at those tight muscles and increase joint range of motion. Using a foam roller is a science as well as an art. You must be mindful and move slowly. I’d recommend watching a few tutorials if you’ve never used one before. You can target isolated areas of pain, or use a foam roller for an overall muscle melt-down targeting all of your major muscle groups. Simply use the weight of your body to compress the foam roller against the ground with the muscle you’re trying to loosen up. Roll slowly back and forth until you start to notice the muscle release. Roll the entire length of the muscle or rest on an area of tension until it softens. Warning, this might be painful, use caution and back off if your pain level reaches an 8 or 9.
- Tennis Ball – any small, round and pliable object will do. All you need to do is place the ball underneath the trigger point and hold the ball in place with the floor or wall. If the trigger point is in your piriformis (a lateral rotator of the hip) you can sit or lie down on the ball and hold the position until you start to feel the muscle release. A couple minutes at a time will do- you can stop when it starts to feel less painful.
- Posture awareness + deep breathing – This one is SO important for all of us who work with our hands out in front of us (i.e. sitting at a computer, massage therapist, pretty much everyone). As you’re sitting here, reading this take note of your posture. Are you leaning in? Are your shoulders rounding forward? How is your breathing- short and shallow or deep and slow? Is your lower back protected, or aching with discomfort? Start to pay attention to the cues of your body. Breath deep, full breaths into your belly. Pull your shoulders up towards your ears, round them down your back and let them go. Soften your jaw by making space between your teeth. Breath practice, meditation and mindfulness towards posture are very helpful tools in releasing tension and pain.
Rolling Pin – Wipe off the whole wheat flour, and start rolling out your muscles. Muscles you might target are: Your calves – both the front of your lower leg, and the back. Your inner, medial and outer upper thigh or quad. Your hamstrings, outer hips and glutes. The occiput which is at the base of your skull just above your uppermost cervical vertebra- you might even rest your head at this spot on the rolling pin (or tennis ball) lying on the couch. *Be mindful not to roll over bony landmarks! All muscles are game with this tool.
- Ice + Heat – Also referred to as a vascular flush. The idea is to bring blood flow to the area of restriction or pain to reduce inflammation and increase function. With a subacute injury 3 days to 3 weeks afterwards you can ice the area for 3 minutes, and contrast with heat for 1 minute. Do this 3 times for a total time of 11 minutes ending with 3 minutes of ice. The parameters for ice and heat treatment depend on the amount of time that has passed after an injury. Within the first three days of an injury use the procedure known as RICE. If it’s a chronic issue, do the opposite of the subacute treatment starting with 3 minutes of heat to 1 minute of ice for 2 rounds; total time 8 minutes.
- Muscle + skin rolling – I saved the best for last. Using the sensitivity of your own bare hands, grab your muscles and roll them between your thumb and fingers. Muscles you can easily target are your pecs, quads, deltoids, biceps, triceps, anterior tibialis, calves, feet, occiput, masseter, forearms, hands, and more! You can actually sink into the belly of your muscles to find trigger points, hold the point for a little bit of time, then release. Move slowly. You don’t have to use a lot of pressure to release built up tension, it’s quite the opposite. Apply light to moderate pressure to start, and be patient. Breath into the tension to help your muscles relax on their own accord.
I know there’s more self-massage tools out there! What tools do you use? If you found these tips helpful I’d love to hear what works and what doesn’t.
Tara Shultis, MA, LMT, RYT