One of the greatest myths of the manual therapy world is the belief of a physical treatment breaking down scar tissue or muscle fibers.
That’s right, we said it. You’ve been told lies. Manual therapy cannot break down tissue.
If pressure from a therapists’s hands were enough to break down any tissue, why doesn’t the skin tear from a massage. After all, muscles help us lift incredible amounts of weight and do extreme volumes of work, and so muscle fibers must certainly be even stronger than the apparently-durable skin.
Take this example as well. We know from exercise science that muscle builds and grows bigger upon resistance exercise. However, we need to pull significant amount of weight in order to initiate breakdown that way. Is it reasonable to believe that a pair of hands can replicate the load that a 200lb squat has on the muscles?
As well, if muscle builds after it breaks down, then this old myth also suggests that you could achieve muscle growth and hypertrophy from a massage.
You can see the logical failings here.
In reality, the science has shown us that to initiate a permanent and truly structural change to tissue with manual pressure, the force required would break bones.
All Is Not Lost
This does not go to say, however, that all is lost and that manual therapy and rehab are pointless.
Scar tissue exists all throughout our bodies all the time and does not cause us harm or dysfunction. When it does hurt, it is due to the body not being conditioned properly to cope with it.
Pain and muscular function are neurologically driven. The way that a treatment such as massage works is by inputting a new sensation into the body and “overriding” the old one (pain). This creates an opportunity for the body to move without discomfort and remember that feeling well enough that it learns to remain that way.
And this doesn’t just go for massage. All modalities, such as electrical stimulation, scraping, cupping, and needling all work through this same principle.
So there you have it. We won’t be breaking down any scar or muscle tissue short of the very gradual process of prolonged time and consistent exercise. Instead, we’re using manual therapy to teach the body a new behaviour. It’s not as glamourous as the traditional “breakdown” model, but understanding this gives us an incredible benefit in regards to knowing how to help you recover even more rapidly.