It is the focus on the "fascial" system that sets Rolf Structural Integration (RSI) apart from other forms of massage therapy and bodywork. Let's take a look at a couple of the unique qualities of fascia. Along with the skeletal system, the fascial system is the main structural component of the body. It is composed primarily of protein (collagen and elastin) fibers suspended in a semiliquid material called ground substance. The most important quality of the ground substance as it relates to RSI is its ability to transform from a thick, sticky "gel" form to a more fluid, slick "sol" form. The sol form is the normal, healthy condition of the ground substance that allows the bundles and layers of fascia to slide smoothly against its neighboring fascial component. In gel form, it tends to adhere to the tissue around it - think about a mass of scar tissue which is an area of fascia with randomly arranged fibers stuck together with ground substance in gel form.We find fascia in three general conditions in the body. (1) In the normal, healthy condition, the protein fibers are organized parallel to the muscle cells, and they are suspended in fluid, slick ground substance in sol form. (2) In the unhealthy altered form, the protein fibers are densely packed and stuck together by ground substance in thick, sticky gel form. (3) And in the case of scar tissue, the protein fibers are randomly arranged, like a bowl of spaghetti, and stuck in gel form ground substance.Through injury, overuse, or bad posture the fascia changes from healthy/sol form to unhealthy/gel. The inward flow of oxygen and compounds used by the muscle cells in normal cellular metabolism, and the flow of CO2 and waste products out of the cell slows, changing the biochemical balance and causing dysfunction and pain.Fortunately, RSI can intervene in this process and change the gel form fascia back into sol form, so the tissue can return to health. On a molecular level, the physical work of RSI compresses the molecules of the fascia into a smaller space where they bump into each other more often, generating heat, (and by physical definition - changing from solid to liquid form), melting the tissue into the healthy fluid sol state.
So how does this work in helping a person feel better? Let's take the example of sciatica, a painful irritation of the sciatic nerve that causes pain and numbness in the butt, and sometimes radiating down the back of the leg. The pain and dysfunction is caused by an impingement on the nerve somewhere along its pathway from where it exits the spinal cord in the lumbar spine, down the middle of the buttocks, and down the middle of the back of the thigh. By evaluating the structure of the back, as an RSI practitioner, I can locate a site in the back that has unequal muscle tone between the left and right sides of the spine. Using RSI techniques I can then work to lengthen the short, contracted side and simultaneously increase the tone on the opposite side. This re-establishes the even left/right balance in muscle tone, and can relieve the impingement on the sciatic nerve as it passes through the tissue. Other RSI techniques can be used if the nerve impingement is occurring in the muscles of the buttock or hamstrings in the back of the thigh. Establishing balance and symmetry in the tone of the soft tissue is the key. This supports proper posture and nervous system function which minimizes the potential for pain.Most people perceive RSI therapy to feel similar to a deep tissue massage, where the pressure is in the "good hurt" range. Because the fascia releases more slowly than the muscle cells, the work is more slowly paced than most massage. During a treatment, I apply firm, steady pressure, with a component of stretch to the tissue, and then wait for the release to occur. When it does, I simply follow the release to the next barrier, and wait for the next release. If no release occurs, I might try to approach the barrier from a different angle or depth. In either case, several times during the session I will step back to reassess the changes in overall body balance and symmetry. It is important to remember that, in effect, I am making suggestions to the body of new ways of function and form. That is, I am trying to replace old habitual ways of function and posture with new, more efficient ways. Often the biggest changes occur days (or more) after a session when the body is able to integrate the work into a new pattern of movement and structural balance.Kirk Apt is a certified bodywork therapist with more than 15 years experience. He utilizes many techniques such as traditional Swedish massage, myofascial therapy and Rolf Structural Integration. He can be reached at Healing Horizons Integrated Health Solutions, 2139 N. 12th St. #7, 970-256-8449.