Rolfing Back In Vogue, But With Shaky Evidence A deep massage technique, called Rolfing Structural Integration, was last popular in the 1970s. Now, it's hip with the yoga-Pilates-acupuncture crowd. But scientists say the research supporting its effectiveness is limited.
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Rolfing Back In Vogue, But With Shaky Evidence

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Rolfing Back In Vogue, But With Shaky Evidence

Rolfing Back In Vogue, But With Shaky Evidence

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today in "Your Health," we're going to work on your stress level. And we're going to start out with some Rolfing. No, not that kind of ralphing. This is Rolfing, a type of deep - really deep - massage that was last popular when Richard Nixon was president. Now, Rolfing has become popular again, this time with the yoga-Pilates-acupuncture crowd.

Sarah Varney, of member station KQED, gave it a try.

(Soundbite of knocking on door)

SARAH VARNEY: As I open the door to a somewhat antiseptic-looking medical office in downtown San Francisco, I'm quite certain I will not be getting a lavender-candles-and-wind-chimes kind of a massage, the kind that will leave me face down in my own drool. I expect this to be painful. That's what I've been told, anyway.

So just lay down right here?

Mr. GREG BRYNELSON (Rolfing Practitioner, Registered Nurse): Yeah, lay on your back with your head up here. And I'll check in with you on a pain scale. So 10 is excruciating. One is nothing. I don't really want to go above a seven or eight for you.

VARNEY: Greg Brynelson is a certified Rolfing practitioner and registered nurse, with a loyal following. He has kind eyes and strong hands - or thumbs; I think that's what pressing into my neck.

Mr. BRYNELSON: Through here, it just feels like I'm coming up against a wall. There's not a lot of give.

VARNEY: Rolfing was named after its founder, an American biochemist named Ida Rolf. Her own health problems led her to believe that deep tension even mild physical deformities in children, like pigeon toes could be relieved by pressing into a type of tissue called fascia. Fascia fuses skin to muscle and muscle to bone, and it kind of keeps everything in place, like a snug pair of pantyhose.

Slouching over a computer and schlepping around kids can tighten and shorten your muscles and with them, the fascia cinches down, like one of those vacuum-sealed beef jerky bags. Rolfers, like Greg, believe stretching out the fascia getting it to be more soft and pliable can improve posture and strength and over time, reduce aches and pain.

(Soundbite of zipper)

VARNEY: Since I had just had my fascia flattened, I wanted to see what it looks like.

Dr. SAKTI SRIVASTAVA (Stanford University): My name is Sakti Srivastava, and I'm faculty here in the Department of Surgery, in the Division of Clinical Anatomy. And we're here in the cadaver lab with some specimens.

VARNEY: Dr. Srivastava and I are down in the basement of Stanford University's medical school looking at sorry if you're still eating breakfast a partially dissected human leg.

Dr. SRIVASTAVA: This is what fascia looks like.

VARNEY: Can I touch it?


VARNEY: It almost looks like when you debone a chicken and you kind of pull the skin off the chicken, and then you've got this thin layer of white film.

Dr. SRIVASTAVA: You can see the fascia.

VARNEY: So is that the fascia, too?

Dr. SRIVASTAVA: Yeah, this is part of the fascia. It's thicker here. This is over the thigh.

VARNEY: If this person had bad posture or a chronic injury, Rolfers say the fascia would tighten, throwing off the person's gait, and possibly leading to low back pain or other aches. It's a theory that is largely taken on faith, say many researchers.

Dr. Wolf Mehling is a manual medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco, who treats patients with Rolfing as well as other kinds of massage. Still, he says, it's hard to say if Rolfing can lead to long-term structural changes in the body.

Dr. WOLF MEHLING (University of California): To my knowledge, there is no randomized, controlled trials comparing this kind of intervention with a different type of massage or body work.

VARNEY: According to Mehling and other researchers, the few studies that have been done are too limited or flawed to draw any conclusions about Rolfing's effectiveness.

Dr. Rob Landel, head of physical therapy at the University of Southern California, says Rolfing's philosophy makes sense. If you can loosen up and improve your posture, your overall body movement improves, too. Indeed, physical therapists are trained to work on soft tissue, like fascia. It's just that they work on other things, too: joints and muscles and ligaments. And that, says Landel, is why Rolfing probably couldn't stand up in a clinical trial.

Dr. ROB LANDEL (University of Southern California): I doubt if it will end up being, oh, this is the thing, because most of our musculoskeletal problems end up being multi-factorial. So it's doubtful that any single approach is going to fix everybody.

VARNEY: More likely, Landel says, is that Rolfing could be shown to work for certain problems, like low back pain, when combined with strengthening exercises and better posture - which brings us back to my back. After pressing deeply into my right shoulder and neck, my Rolfer, Greg Brynelson, asks me to stand up and look in the mirror.

Mr. BRYNELSON: Can you see how this is more...

VARNEY: Yeah, still tight.

Mr. BRYNELSON: ...the left side is still grabbing? There's just more softness through here. Do you feel a little more movement?

VARNEY: It just feels more relaxed, more fluid on this arm.

And it's true: One shoulder has an easy, graceful slope. The other is hunched up, like it often is. As I put my shoes back on a pair of very un-orthotic heels and sling my oversized, overloaded purse onto my shoulder, Greg looks at me with pity and resignation. Me and my fascia, it seems, we're a work in progress.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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