A body free of tension and stress can function at an optimum level. Muscles can move and blood can circulate freely. As a result, oxygen and nutrients are carried to all cells and toxins are eliminated. Freeing a body from tension allows the innate healing mechanisms of the immune system to function. Conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis, backache, neck pain, shoulder pain, digestive disorders, nervousness, headaches, sciatica and more, all benefit from stress and trigger point therapy.
Stress point therapy can be used as a warm up to prevent injuries. After a work out, body work relieves stiffness, pain, prevents tying up, and cramps. Sports massage at a competition is that ounce of prevention that may mean the difference between staying strong and preventing slight muscle tension from turning into a problem and a major injury.
Using stress point and trigger point therapy is a good way to take charge of your health and that of your animals. It is a chance to dissolve tension and tightness before it develops into something serious. My approach is to use the natural healing systems of massage to maintain health, and avoid, as much as possible, drugs with side effects and medical treatments.
I had an interesting case today: an upper level warm blood dressage and event horse. This horse is stunning and balanced, but quite large. He is over 17 hands, has a long neck and back, and big bones. His owner sent me video of a recent dressage lesson and pointed out that he was a bit stiff behind and not coming through over his back. I watched the video several times. The ride was lovely, but the horse seemed uncomfortable. I saw slight twisting of the head, occasional gaping of his mouth: just little signs that something was not quite right.
When I started working on the horse, I noticed one side of his neck was more hollow than the other. I also found big spasms in the rhomboid and brachiocephalicus. These muscles are in the neck, and even though the owner felt that jumping had left the horse stiff in the hind end, I thought that if I could release the spasms in the front end, the hind end would be able to connect and the back would come through. The brachiocephalicus muscle needs to contract properly for jumping and collected work. With the spasm on the left side of his neck, this horse appeared stiff behind because he wasn’t working through his back as well as he could. The big spasms in the rhomboid muscle also were preventing him from reaching and arching his neck.
I also worked on the splenius, a muscle that attaches at the poll, the atlas, and three vertebrae in the neck. As I worked, the hollow looking space in the neck started to match the fuller side. The splenius muscle must be functioning properly to have the flexion necessary in the upper levels. I then did some myofascial release on either side of the neck and there were audible snap,crackle, and pops!
This wonderful horse seemed very relaxed and happy by the end of the session. He will be competing this weekend and I expect to see more connection, balance, flexibility, and freedom of movement.
Send me a message if you would like to know how he places in his championship division!
The majority of problems I encounter are a result of tightened and shortened muscles. My mission is always to find the best way to soften contracted muscles so they can stretch back to a good position. I never do this by pulling on the muscle, but by finding the area of contraction and applying deep pressure to release the tissue of fascia and muscle. With experience I have developed a sense of where a client is being held in tension. The massage consists of me combining my observations with feedback from the client. (Remember: most of my clients don’t talk!). I have to constantly listen to the messages that horses, dogs, pigs, llamas, goats… and sometimes people send to me. No two massages are the same. It takes patience and practice to feel the subtle responses in the body, and to know when to move on to the next area.
Hopefully, all massage is relaxing. But deep tissue is meant to work through the layers of the body to lengthen muscle fibers and release areas that are being held tight. A relaxation massage is focused on the pleasure of the recipient. Deep tissue massage should not be painful, but there will definitely be sensations when spasms are being worked on that might not feel totally enjoyable. Hopefully, after deep tissue massage the decrease in pain and tension will bring a feeling of great relief. Posture should improve, and flexibility and movement should be freer.
Deep Tissue Massage targets the structure of the fascia and muscles, referred to as connective tissue. Of the many types of massage, deep tissue focuses on the release of muscle tension and chronic spasms or adhesions.
Deep tissue massage can also break up and eliminate scar tissue from previous injuries.
While you are grooming your horse, preparing to tack up, there are some things you can check to make sure your horse is ready for whatever athletic endeavor is on your schedule:
If his head is tilted, there could be pain in the neck.
If the back sinks when you groom there, he could have spasms in the long back muscle. This usually goes along with abdominal muscles that need to be massaged.
Stand behind your horse. Are the hips level? If one side is higher than the other, the higher side is usually the source of muscle spasms or a subluxation (dislocation).
Is your horse standing square? Taking weight off a leg could be a sign of discomfort.
Does the jaw look even? If his mouth looks crooked when closed, there may be pain in the jaw or teeth.
If you don’t get a sense of balance and symmetry, your horse might be telling you that it is time for body work.
Last week I wrote about a pony that competes in combined driving. He had recovered from an injury in a hind leg, but had severe pain in his back. Today I went back. The pain was better, but I still felt spasms at both attachments of the long back muscles. The forward attachment is by the withers. The other end attaches on either side of the sacrum. I applied deep pressure at all the spasms and alternated that with spreading the muscle fibers of the longissimus dorsi (back muscle) itself. After about 40 minutes, the pony started to hang his head and really relax. The pain seemed to be gone. The owner walked and trotted him out for me and he looked great. I will go back in 2 weeks for a check, but I think it is time for him to go back to work. I thought it might take six weeks to see this kind of recovery, but it just shows me how releasing spasms can provide tremendous relief.
Barring an actual injury, many problems riders encounter can be the result of a muscle spasm in the horse. By releasing these spasms, the body can be restored to a correct balance (structural integration), tension will be relieved, soreness will resolve, and muscles will be restored to a healthy state. In this series of posts I will cover the most likely culprits that tend to spasm and affect the horses’ performance. Often, by releasing stress points and trigger points, a difficult horse will become sweet and compliant!
A stress point that I often see (especially in thoroughbreds) is on the neck, right behind the atlas (one of the cervical vertebrae). When your horse resists bending to the left, for instance, I will check to see if there is a spasm on the right side of his neck. At times there will be tenderness all the way to the poll. Even at rest, the head can appear to be pulled to one side. If you see your horse in turnout or in his stall stretching his head very low repeatedly, he could be trying to relieve the discomfort of tight muscles (the main culprit has a long name: rectus capitis ventralis). It makes me so happy to watch the horse shake his head and stretch once this knot is released. There is often quite a desire to move forward as well, so watch out!
Rest is important and necessary after an injury. After that it is counterproductive: it allows muscle spasms to become permanent. The longer a spasm is allowed to persist, the longer this occurs: fluid is drawn to the area that is in spasm, which is the body’s way of protecting and healing an injury. That fluid is sticky and after a period of time, the muscle fibers become “glued” together. The only way to un-stick the muscle fibers is with manual manipulation and then exercise. With cross fiber friction, a massage technique, the muscle fibers that are stuck together can be released. I always have animals walk after their bodywork to maintain the loose, easy motion that was achieved during the session. An increase in range of motion, and a decrease in pain should be seen immediately.
If your horse is sound going straight, but seems slightly off on circles, I check a muscle on the neck called the brachiocephalicus. This muscle runs from the poll all the way to the shoulder. Its’ function is to extend the shoulder and bend the head and neck. When a spasm is found early, this is a quick fix and the horse will be sound right away.
Another spot that can contribute to the same problem is right under the scapula, or shoulder blade. Again, release of this knot usually only requires one treatment.