This Massage Method Produces Results

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Tribune photo by SCOTT ISKOWITZ

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Graston Therapy uses tools resembling handle bars, tongue depressors and boomerangs to break up scar tissue

By MARY SHEDDEN | The Tampa Tribune
Published: November 25, 2008

Chronic pain sometimes starts as a distraction, an inconvenience.

After all, it's human nature to think the hurt will go away over time. Unless there's a simple solution, the main treatment is two spoonfuls of denial.

Kathleen Flach, a longtime distance runner and Ultimate Frisbee competitor, played through debilitating hip pain most of the past year. As the discomfort grew, however, so did the 30-something Tampa resident's need to address it.

So she tried stretching and rest. Cut down on her running. Saw a doc about arthritis. Grilled a sports medicine specialist. Endured rounds of physical therapy. Relied on ibuprofen.

Still, she hurt. And her frustration grew.

Flach, like many of us, wanted to avoid a surgical or pharmaceutical solution to her injury. This wasn't a tear or a broken bone. In fact, she knew she had been injury-free for nearly 20 years. But the pain had evolved as little dings and bruises became scar tissue, and it significantly reduced her flexibility and increased her discomfort.

For her, the solution was Graston Therapy, an increasingly popular form of massage therapy used by chiropractors. Imagine a deep, deep, deep tissue massage for which the therapist uses tools resembling handle bars, tongue depressors and boomerangs to break up scar tissue. Eight Tampa area clinics offer the technique.

The six treatments hurt so much it left bruises, Flach says. But it also was the first time something worked.

"I'm as flexible now as I was when I was 15," she says of the treatments, which cost about $40 a session.

Flach's chiropractor, Craig Newman, says he's seen a significant increase in interest in this type of treatment alternative since he started using it in 2003. The specialized tools and treatments, designed at Ball State University in the early 1990s, differ from the chiropractic and massage therapy techniques already in place at his 27-year-old practice.

He says many of the people he treats with the Graston tools are active and athletic, and adamant about wanting to remain so despite such injuries as rotator cuff, shoulder and hip stiffness or plantar fasciitis. The tools better help him break up the fibrous tissue and built-up lactic acid than can be done with a bare hand.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine doesn't specifically address the Graston Technique. But the agency does point to massage therapy as a low-risk treatment alternative that does more than help someone relax.

"People use massage for a wide variety of health-related intents: for example, to relieve pain, often from musculoskeletal conditions, but from other conditions as well; rehabilitate sports injuries; reduce stress; increase relaxation; address feelings of anxiety and depression; and aid general wellness," says the agency, which is part of the national Institutes of Health.

There is one major caveat: No one seeking treatment of an injury should undergo massage therapy or any other alternative medicine without consulting with his or her primary health providers first. Wellness requires a holistic approach.

Tampa resident Jim Machise says he was tired of how the bone spurs in his right shoulder reduced his mobility and affected his beloved golf game. The international airline pilot and 8-handicap amateur golfer knew he didn't want to stop playing, and didn't want to sit out six months recovering from surgery.

"Nobody really wants to go under the knife," says Machise, who was treated with the Graston Technique. "Everybody is looking for alternatives."

The solution he and Flach found may not be for everyone. But if you keep trying, a solution could be out there.