Physical Training Apr 2004
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Massage for the Martial Artist

 by Emily Dolan Gordon

What Goes Wrong

Welcome back to the Bodywork for Budoka series.

This month, we're dealing with What Goes Wrong. The truth is that we take so much for granted about our bodies that we simply abuse them randomly and then get upset when something goes wrong.

All of our layers and systems exist in a tolerant but delicate balance. The muscular system is but a part of the fascial connections which give the framework movement. Bones, naturally, are the framework, and are simply a jumbled dry stack without connective tissue to organize them. Similarly, muscles and fascia are random blobs without bones to pull and push against.

Muscles and fascia can be likened to fabric. Composed of fibers which lie wrapped in other fibers, tying by ever harder fibers (remember that nylon cord was created to try to re-create the strength of natural sinew) into the dense live canvas sheath of periosteum covering the bone. These fibers, if torn or traumatized, react by matting themselves together defensively, or creating constricted, inflamed areas "defended" by an immune response which harms as much as it helps (trigger points).

Let's use the hamstrings, the big muscles on the back of your leg, as an example of the kind of damage and effects the average budoka may experience. In the beginning of everyone's training is a lot of learning to get up, and back down. Whether this is the smooth rise from seiza in iai, horse stance for a small eternity, or the awkward flops of early ukemi, the hamstrings are getting you up and putting you back down. Let us presume a young body, with supple muscles. The new movements, over-practiced, create microtears in the muscle. This is a part of normal muscle development, and new strength is part of the repair process. However, let us assume this budoka is intent on learning everything Right Now (gee, I don't know anyone like that..) who perseveres past the muscle tolerance, perhaps losing balance and having to use the already stressed muscle group suddenly and maximally. A burning, tearing sensation courses down the back of the thigh and our student is stunned and in pain.

If the student is wise and well-advised, ice and a couple of weeks rest are applied. The fibers have time to heal neatly without extra scarring. However, pressing herself to "work through the pain" the muscle fibers are torn and re-torn, causing a deep, matted, stiffening scar. Presuming she drinks enough clean water to keep tissues hydrated and self-cleaning, follows a diet including enough protein and green leafy vegetables and natural fatty acids to combat inflammation, her body is prepared to repair the damage and get on with life. Hopefully she knows she can see a massage or physical therapist for some active stretching and cross-fiber friction about two weeks after the injury to be sure the scar heals smoothly without too much of a snag in the fascial net of the thigh. If you think of a sweater with a snag in it, badly tied together and causing an ugly warp, this is how scar tissue works. Over time it can really tighten up and cause stiffness and imbalance. Self-massage is sufficient, but it's better to feel how it "should feel" by getting some serious and compassionate bodywork, sports massage or myotherapy. Contact the massage school in your area for recommendations.

Let's look at another case, an older student. Let's say one in their thirties with a computer job, beginning iai or perhaps aikido. Years of chronic over stretching of the back of the shoulders and compaction in the chest and front of the neck from leaning forward over computer monitors have created a bad situation: The trapezius and rhomboids are chronically stretched and may harbor trigger points. The pectoral muscles and the big muscles in the front of the neck, the sternocleidomastoid, are chronically tight, and may also have a few trigger points.

This person may have shooting shoulder and neck pains during ukemi, or severe pain after or during upper body movements in iai. It may be very difficult for them to adopt the proper upright posture for budo due to the tightness in the front of their body. This tends to happen to all of us with time, and it can also be indicative of emotional issues or depressions. Resolution of the posture problem tends to lead to feelings of lightness and relief.

Wait, you say, what the heck is a trigger point?

When your neck hurts and you reach up instinctively to rub it, and you find a knot that hurts like the dickens and/or sends weird sensations shooting to other parts of your body, that's a trigger point. Technically, it's a congested tangle of myofilaments (muscle fibers) stuck in a contracted position, usually near a nerve, which is why they hurt so much and cause so much trouble. Even if they aren't near a nerve, they act to once again put a snag in the fascial "bag" you live in, under your skin.

Trigger points can be banished in several ways. Simple pressure of about 6 pounds (2 kg) applied compassionately and patiently in an orbiting pattern, directly on the point, will quickly cause the pain to abate, though it might initially hurt a bit. You will need about 10 sessions to send it into true remission. Stretch the muscle thoroughly after treatment. For really bad cases, you may need to see a medical doctor or osteopath for trigger point injections. This practicioner should use .05 concentration lidocaine and NEVER STEROIDS! precisely at the location of the trigger point. Trigger points can also be treated by acupuncture, but only by someone who really knows what they are doing. You can get trigger points on the top of your head, or in the muscles of your feet, and everywhere in between. Most people have at least a few.

Please do your research on trigger points if you are serious about self-treatment. Check out Claire Davies' Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. It is wonderfully accessible and readable, with great pictures and clear text.

One of the best ways to work on flexibility and posture is by yoga practice. Many videos may be available for you to sample at your public library. Personally, I am applying Ashtanga, or power yoga, to my own flexibility problems with great success. It is a very active practice, and very challenging. Yoga stretches and strengthens the same internal and deep muscles we use in budo, as well as giving a venue for developing stillness and focus. Like budo, the workings of the art are not in the trappings but in the practice.. so don't worry about the tie-dye and beads if you aren't into that. Pilates is another option, tough but effective. Movement therapies such as Feldenkrais (who was a jujutsuka) or Alexander (a stage performer) are also worth looking into.

There are some systemic problems which can lead to extra susceptibility to myofascial problems. Systemic troubles such as stress, chronic dehydration (less than 60 ounces of WATER a day), thyroid or other hormonal imbalance, malnutrition, structural problems (one leg shorter, twisted hips, scoliosis, injuries) and simple over or under-training can all lead to physical pain and muscular problems. As humans age, muscle and fascia literally "dries out" resulting in more tightness, especially in the under-exercised and malnourished body. Do literally anything movement-oriented for an hour a day, stretch after, and avoid most problems. Drink plenty of filtered, clean water. Solve your problems and banish stress. Participate in your own life. Eat whole foods and stay away from processed grains and sugars. Learn to appreciate being (is there a better way than budo??).

Chronic pain syndrome and fibromyalgia are two ailments affecting ever more people, of all genders and walks of life. Should you find yourself in pain and lying low for more than a couple weeks at a time, relying on pain-relieving drugs to function normally, or have tiredness, aches and pains which your doctor cannot figure out or explain, don't let anyone tell you you're crazy. Do research.

Don't ignore pain. With the right resources, it can be dealt with, and your training, and life, can continue. This is the important thing.

Travell and Simons Trigger Point Manual, Vol 1
Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, Claire Davies
From Fatigued to Fantastic, Jacob Teitelbaum
The Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Survival Manual, Devyn Starlanyl; Injuries of Martial Artists section

Emily Dolan Gordon has suffered most of the possible martial arts afflictions and injuries as well as coming up with special varieties... and she has survived to continue practicing and help others continue practicing. She is a graduate of the Lauterstein Conway School of Massage in Austin, Texas (  She enthusiastically welcomes input and networking from budoka and health professionals who treat them. Her web site is: 

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Physical Training Apr 2004