Rolf Your Pain Away

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Concert pianist Leon Fleisher almost played his way out of a career. The repetitive stress of daily practice, rehearsals, and performances left him with a crippling hand injury that sidelined him for 30 years. Though he continued to teach, conduct, and perform musical compositions written solely for the left hand, his ability to use his right hand was virtually nil. For years he explored practically every diagnostic and therapeutic option he heard about, with little or no success, until his wife suggested Rolfing. Ten months later, Fleisher was once again performing -- this time with both hands.

Fleisher is not alone in having found relief from intense, crippling pain through this form of massage. Rolfing, which is named for the woman who developed it -- Ida P. Rolf, PhD -- is attracting increasing attention as more people, including celebrities such as actor LeVar Burton of Star Trek fame, and athletes such as Olympic figure skater Elvis Stojko, credit Rolfing for not only easing pain, but also with helping them gain more self-esteem and realize their potential.

That was true for certified Rolfer Adrian Kellar of Victoria, Texas, who first underwent Rolfing (also known as structural integration) about 18 years ago at the urging of a friend. "I had no real physical problems," says Kellar. "But at the end of the first session I felt so good about myself that I went back for the remaining nine sessions.

"When you're really into your body," Kellar adds, "you move better and people start perceiving you differently. Your self-esteem comes way up. You feel more empowered and you like yourself better."

Rolfing is a holistic system of deep tissue massage that realigns and balances your body so that your head, shoulders, chest, pelvis, and legs are in a better vertical alignment. Treatment consists of 10 one-hour sessions, preferably given weekly, starting from the head and working down to the feet.

Each session builds upon the last until the body is totally aligned, front to back, side to side, top to bottom, and inside to outside. "It's like peeling an onion," says Thomas W. Findley, MD, PhD, associate director for research at the Center for the Study of War Related Illness of the VA Medical Center in East Orange, New Jersey. "You go deeper and deeper."

The underlying principle of Rolfing is that injuries, poor movement habits, and chronic muscle tension from stress, cause the fasciae (thin layers of flexible connective tissue that are wrapped around your muscles and form the tendons that attach the ends of your muscles to your bones) to stiffen. This in turn keeps you from moving freely and easily. The practice of deep tissue massage that Rolf developed more than 50 years ago is designed to loosen the fasciae so that your muscles can move more easily, which lets you unlearn bad patterns of muscle strain and misuse.

Kellar, who was so impressed by her own experience with Rolfing that she earned her certificate five years ago and now has a private practice, says the technique can be used on just about anyone. The only people for whom Rolfing is not recommended, she says, are those who have active cancer, are suffering from a broken bone, or are recuperating from surgery.

She has seen clients with problems caused by auto accidents, neck and low back pain, arthritis, sports injuries, repetitive stress injuries, polio syndrome -- as well as those, like herself, who just want to learn to move better or improve their breathing and flexibility. "It's not a bad way to loosen up your golf swing either," she says, a benefit many of her clients have reported.

Findley, who uses Rolfing in both his private practice and with his patients at the VA Center, says it doesn't work for everyone, but it usually becomes apparent in a session or two whether it's going to have the desired effect. Even if you do notice improvement though, he cautions, it's important not to rush the process. "There are 10 sessions for a reason," he says. "You shouldn't try to fix too much, too soon."

"Once the body gets into alignment and integrates the work that has been done on it, it just gets better and better," says Adrian Kellar. While most people need just the 10 sessions that are the standard course of treatment, some do come in for a "tune-up" on a regular basis.

Rolfing has had a reputation of being painful, and Kellar acknowledges that it can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience, depending on your sensitivity to touch and the part of the body being worked on. "Some people say it hurts 'good,'" she says. "But it should never be intolerable. If you do find it painful, tell the practitioner immediately so he or she can make adjustments."

Findley adds that developments in Rolfing techniques in recent years have made the sessions much less intense. "Today we have learned how to evoke a change in movement with much less force," he says. "I've even had people fall asleep while having it done."

Practitioners of Rolfing -- or Rolfers -- use their thumbs, knuckles, hands, and sometimes even their elbows and knees as part of the massage. No equipment is used; it's strictly a hands-on treatment.

It is not unlike chiropractic, says Findley, except that Rolfing focuses on soft tissue, chiropractic on bones. "Basically, they're cousins," Findley explains, adding that they're both offshoots of osteopathy (a branch of medicine based on the theory that your bones and muscles and the rest of your body all work together).

Rolfing is a form of massage, says Kellar, but it offers the added benefit of creating structural change, which ordinary massage -- however relaxing and therapeutic, from a stress-relieving point of view, it may be -- does not accomplish. "Rolfing can get the body back in alignment," says Kellar, offering the analogy of tires on a car. "If the tires aren't in alignment, they wear out on one side more than the other.

"The same thing happens with our body," Kellar says, adding that most people use the right side of their body more often, resulting in deterioration of hip and knee joints.

Originally published Nov. 4, 2002.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors