Myofascial Release Therapy vs. Swedish Massage for Fibromyalgia

Editor’s comment: Myofascial release is a gentle form of soft-tissue therapy that focuses on releasing restrictions in the fascia – connective tissues that provides protection and support for most structures in the body.  When fascia become restricted, it can lead to pain, muscle tension and diminished blood flow.  Swedish massage is probably the most common form of massage done in Western countries.  It uses a variety of strokes or movements to warm the muscle tissue, release tension and break up muscle knots or adhesions, with the goal of providing relaxation and pain relief.    

A pilot study of myofascial release therapy compared to Swedish massage in Fibromyalgia.

By Ginevra Liptan, MD, et al.


Fibromyalgia (FM) is characterized by widespread muscle pain and soft tissue tenderness. However, a lack of definitive muscle pathology has made FM both a diagnostic and a treatment puzzle.

Much of the evidence for pathology in FM lies in the central nervous system – in particular abnormal amplification of pain signals in the spinal cord – a manifestation of central sensitization. An emerging body of evidence posits that peripheral pain generated from the muscles and fascia may trigger and maintain central sensitization in FM.

Since FM patients so frequently seek manual therapy to relieve muscle symptoms, the present study compared two different manual therapy techniques in a parallel study of women with FM. Eight subjects received myofascial release (MFR) while four subjects received Swedish massage, 90  min weekly for four weeks.

Overall symptom burden and physical function were assessed by the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire Revised (FIQ-R). A unique challenge for the manual therapist in treating conditions involving central sensitization is to determine if localized pain reduction can be achieved with targeted therapy in the context of ongoing widespread pain. Localized pain improvement was measured by a novel questionnaire developed for this study, the modified Nordic Musculoskeletal Questionnaire (NMQ).

Between-group differences in FIQ-R did not reach statistical significance, but the total change scores on FIQ-R for the MFR group (mean  =  10.14, SD  =  16.2) trended in the hypothesized and positive direction compared to the Swedish massage group (mean  =  0.33, SD  =  4.93) yielding a positive Aikin separation test.

Although overall modified NMQ scores improved in both groups there were no consistent focal areas of improvement for the Swedish massage group. In contrast, the MFR group reported consistent pain reductions in the neck and upper back regions on the NMQ.

These data support the need for larger randomized controlled trials of MFR versus other massage techniques and support the assessment of localized pain reduction in future manual therapy studies in FM.

Source: Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, July, 2013. By Ginevra Liptan, MD, Scott  Mist, PhD, MAcOM, Cheryl  Wright, PhD, FNP-BC, Anna  Arzt, DNP, FNP-BC, and Kim Dupree  Jones, PhD, FNP-BC. The Frida Center for Fibromyalgia, 6400 SW Canyon Ct., Ste 100, Portland, OR 97221, USA.

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