Soft tools can achieve all the potential benefits of massage: increased relaxation, proprioception, pain-relief, and circulation, reduction of inflammation, and sometimes, manipulation and restructuring of connective tissue.
However, there are certain cases where soft tools don’t get the job done, or at least don’t do as well as hard tools do to achieve the desired effect. This is especially true for manipulating connective tissue that has solidified to the point that a large amount of force is required to create changes.
Leave the Hard Stuff to the Pros
There’s a reason why your dentist uses the sharp, scary looking tools and why you use a toothbrush with soft plastic bristles: hard tools are… hard to use (at least correctly).
The professional tools can be effective, but they are both risky and difficult to use, as they are specialized tools for a specialized purpose, and as such, they require skill and precision to use well.
If your tissues are really stiff and softer tools are not effectively providing any change, then harder tools may make sense, but for the reasons discussed in the previous parts of this series, they shouldn’t be the default for most people.
Using a soft, squishy massage ball, for example, is kind of like brushing your teeth: once you’ve been taught how to use it, there is very little risk, and you can intuitively figure out how to use it to achieve most of the daily “hygiene benefits.”
In fact, hygiene is a way to think about connective tissue health. Following this oral-hygiene analogy can illuminate the parallels…
It’s much easier to prevent a cavity than it is to treat one once it has already formed, right? We brush our teeth every day as to prevent the build up of unwanted plaque. Once the plaque or cavity has developed, most of us don’t try to remove it — we see a specialist — the dentist.
Even if we don’t think we have cavities, most of us visit a dentist for a regular cleaning and a check-up to make sure we haven’t developed any issues we were not aware of.
Similarly, our daily connective tissue hygiene is first and foremost a preventive measure against the build up of unwanted fibrosis (aka stuck together connective tissue, which leads to lack of mobility and proprioception) than it is to treat it once it has already formed.
And similar to check ups with a dentist, it is probably a good idea to see a professional every once in a while to see if you’ve developed any “movement plaque” that hasn’t quite turned into a “movement cavity” yet.
With your teeth and you connective tissue, once you’re already in pain, it’s probably too late for preventive measure; now, you need a specialist to fix the problem(s).
A manual therapist serves the role of a professional for connective tissue the way a dentist does for dental health. A manual therapist can be a generic bodyworker, massage therapist, chiropractor, or another hands-on professional.
Personally, I have had the best results, in terms of creating sustainable changes to the health of my connective tissue and the ways it affects my posture, movement, pain, and performance, being treated by a Rolfer. Rolfing, or Structural Integration, is a specific form of manual therapy developed by biochemist Ida Rolf that aims to systematically manipulate and reorganize connective tissue and fascia.
Rolfing is often symbolized in images like this one, showing before and after versions of a body’s alignment with gravity in space.
Note: This is, like most of my analogies, oversimplified. There are several ways that oral hygiene and connective tissue hygiene are different — but if we start to think about our personal role in connective tissue hygiene in the same way we do our oral hygiene, prioritizing consistent daily self-care, I believe we can save ourselves the hassle of dealing with the equivalent of connective tissue cavities.
Next week marks the end of my series on hard and soft massage tools; come back to see my recommendations on making the most of harder tools to treat yoself.