Health

Medieval-like tools used to relieve chronic pain

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A technique to help relieve chronic pain and promote muscle healing is gaining popularity in the Bay Area among physical therapists and trainers. Proponents believe its effective, though not always for the faint of heart.

After struggling for more than a year and a half to recover from a catastrophic spinal cord injury, Laura Bozied knows a thing or two about pain. But she's about to endure some more -- and feels pretty good about it.

"Once you get into it, it's a painful kind of good. So you can tell it's working," she said.

Over the course of 30 minutes, physical therapist Carrie Cameron is going to use a set of Medieval-looking tools to pull, prod and otherwise manipulate the fibers deep inside Laura's muscle tissue.

The therapy is called the Graston Technique. It is a form of targeted, deep tissue massage and as she moves over the damaged tissue. Cameron says the stainless steel tools amplify a kind of vibration, helping to pinpoint the damage.

"Sometimes I'll describe it as feeling like I'm over a bumpy road, a gravely feel. You can feel the scar tissue in different ways," Cameron said.

Once she's on top of the scarred tissue, she uses the beveled edges to dig in and break it up to increase blood flow, theoretically allowing healthy tissue to grow in.

It's often used for conditions like tendonitis.

While the Graston Technique is relatively new, the strategy of massaging tissue fibers has been around for decades. And there are competing techniques for relieving similar kinds of pain.

Dr. Kristin Wingfield is a sports medicine specialist at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco.

"I'm a huge fan of deep tissue massage, active release therapy called ART and Graston. They're all sort of similar in that they get deep into the muscle and fascia and break up scar tissue to help things move more fluidly," she said.

The Graston Technique is now used by NFL and NBA teams, among other professional sports. But even proponents admit its regimen may not be the right choice for everyone.

"It definitely can be painful, and for some people it can be too painful," Cameron said.

But Laura, a former professional volleyball player, says that tolerating the discomfort has been a valuable tradeoff for her.

After her accident, she says doctors weren't convinced she'd walk again. She says her muscles and joints are now healthy enough to allow her to run, and possibly pursue sports once again.

"Ideally my goal is to get to a marathon, so yeah," Laura said.

Side effects can include bruising. Insurance coverage isn't 100 percent -- though the procedure is often covered as part of standard physical therapy.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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