Rolfing: No Longer a Fringe Therapy

A long-ignored treatment for chronic pain goes mainstream.

Close-up of a back massage.
By SHARE

After eight years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, C.J. Chang, the principal viola, says he "couldn't really play more than 10 minutes without severe pain." Doctors diagnosed an overgrown muscle in his right hand, but neither massage nor ultrasound provided relief. A colleague recommended that Chang try an alternative therapy known as Rolfing. After the fifth or sixth treatment, Chang says, he felt his "whole hand just freeing" and was able to resume his career.

Rolfing Structural Integration was developed in the 1930s by Ida P. Rolf, a biochemist from New York, after she was diagnosed with spinal arthritis. Rolf focused on the role of the fascia, a form of connective tissue that envelops different muscle groups, allowing them to move freely in relation to each other and often across several joints. When an injury occurs, she theorized, the fascia tightens around that injury, somewhat like a cast or band-aid. Even after the injury heals, the fascia stays in that rigid position, often causing chronic pain and discomfort. Structural Integration is a form of deep tissue massage that stretches and opens the fascia, correcting misalignment and restoring balance throughout the whole body. Actor Christopher Reeve was treated around his lungs to allow him to breathe without his ventilator. Figure skater Michelle Kwan has used the therapy to gain a competitive edge, help with her balance, and recover from injuries more quickly.

[See Advances Against Chronic Pain.]

New support. While many schools around the world teach Structural Integration, only the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colo., is accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation. As of April, the United States alone had approximately 1,000 certified Rolfers. And this number is likely to continue expanding.

Long ignored as a fringe therapy, Structural Integration, which consists of 10 weekly sessions of 60 to 90 minutes, has recently been getting serious attention from researchers. The National Institutes of Health provided a grant for the First International Fascia Research Congress in 2007, which brought together therapists, scientists, and doctors.

More recently, Eric Jacobson, a research associate at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School's department of global health and social medicine, received an NIH grant to study Structural Integration's effect on chronic low back pain, which affects 16 million American adults. Other research has shown the therapy reduces the pain of fibromyalgia.

[See 6 Simple Ways to Improve Symptoms of Fibromyalgia]

Bradley Smith, a 53-year-old chemical engineer from Albuquerque, N.M., is already convinced of its power against back pain. He was starting to accept his pain as an inevitable part of the aging process until some of his scientist friends recommended he try the therapy. He became such a big fan that he's thinking about becoming a Rolfer himself when he retires in four years.