Differences between percussive therapy and myofascial release

PTs, OTs, Certified Hand Therapists, Orthopedic Doctors, MD’s and Chiropractors agree that muscles need to have full range range of motion to function at their best.

Maintaining full range of motion means your muscles have full function with their natural levels of strength and endurance.  In other words, they should not be tight! Tight, short muscles are the root cause of tendinitis (and other repetitive strain injuries), since they incessantly pull and irritate the tendon attachments at the elbow or through the wrist.   

To get back full muscle range of motion, it’s the type and intention of the therapy TECHNIQUE that is useful, not the type of massage therapy TOOL you use.  The technique is the most important thing to remember.   And the bottom line is that full range of motion is not regained simply through rolling or hammer-bonking on your muscles.

To get specific, let’s briefly compare two currently popular therapy techniques and associated tools:  Percussive and Myofascial Release.

Percussive - I have to be honest with you, I don’t find that percussive massage gets the best results for restoring range of motion (although I’ll admit that it feels great!).

Percussive Massage is a method of therapy administered by repeatedly smacking and hammer-bonking tight bundles of muscles.  This effect tenderizes the muscles and increases general circulation in the area, especially when used around the upper back and shoulders.  

The technique can be done by hand (I frankly love a good percussive session myself, usually administered by two-handed karate chopping), and there are also several tools that are based on this principle.  For the general consumer, there are those vibrating sticks with a knob at the end that, when set on high, can vibrate the heck out of any body part. Higher-priced options include professional-grade percussion-based tools that increase the vibrational rate even further, so that the tool tip hammer-bonks at a high rate per second - as many as 40.  

However, when it comes to restoring range of motion, percussive massage offers limited results.  While it relaxes the tightness in the muscle, it doesn’t introduce the necessary lengthening that the muscles need to stop pulling on their tendons and regain full range of motion.

Myofascial Release - To regain full range of motion, I and other sports medicine massage experts use what is called the Myofascial Release Trigger Point Therapy technique.  

Here’s how you do the technique and what it does for you:  

  • Using one hand, feel around on the opposite forearm muscle until you find a sore spot (“trigger point”) and apply steady pressure to the spot. 
  • At the same time, flex and extend the opposite hand at the wrist as far as you can.  Repeat this motion for a few minutes.  

The hand and wrist movement stretches the forearm muscles, and combined with the pressure on the trigger point, helps restore the muscle to its original length.

Myofascial Release is highly accurate, non-violent, thoughtful, has quick noticeable results, and can be easily taught to anyone.  And you don’t need a tool to do it! You can use your hands, a hard ball, a brick, or a can of food. 

That said, having a specialized tool such as Armaid®, with its two-armed, leverage-based design, can help lessen the physical tiredness that your “therapy” hand and arm experience. This is especially true if you find that you are doing the technique multiple times a day for extended sessions!

So, to recap, Myofascial and related Active Release Therapy techniques are the most common techniques applied to professional athletes to regain full range of motion.  Percussive massage, though enjoyable, just doesn’t offer the same level of benefits. I highly suggest you adopt the simple technique of Myofascial Release, it will be your friend for life!

(Photo by Gabriel Barletta on Unsplash)