If you’re dealing with a soft tissue injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome, shin splints or a knee sprain, soft tissue mobilization might provide some relief from symptoms and help your body recover. This type of therapy may be preferable to more invasive options or pain medications by many patients. It’s also often prescribed by doctors as a conservative form of treatment before riskier options such as surgery are attempted. Learn more about soft tissue mobilization below, including how it works and how long it takes.
Soft tissue mobilization is an umbrella term for a wide range of techniques used to manipulate the soft tissues within your body. The goals of these treatments include breaking down adhesions to reduce swelling and pain while working to lengthen muscles and tendons and improve overall functionality of the injured area.
Soft tissue mobilization can be performed by a wide range of licensed practitioners. Those include physical therapists, massage therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors and certain types of doctors.
Soft tissue mobilization treatments typically begin with an evaluation to understand what joints or other areas are impacted by an injury or issue. The treatment provider assesses pain level as well as range of motion and functionality of the injured area to determine what recommendations to make.
The provider may recommend and use various techniques when performing soft tissue mobilization. Many have scientific-sounding names, but they mostly refer to how the provider interacts with the soft tissues in the injured area. Some common methods include:
These and other types of pressure are applied with the hands or using special tools. Soft tissue manipulation can involve various soft tissues within your body, including fat, muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage.
You have tendinitis or plantar fasciitis.
You’re experiencing pain in your neck, back or hip.
You experience repetitive movement injuries such as golf or tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome.
You have a cardiac condition, inflammatory condition, infection, contagious disease, high temperature or a compromised immune system.
You have a skin infection, acute inflammation or are prone to bruising.
Soft tissue mobilization is backed by fairly expensive anecdotal evidence. Many people believe it has a positive impact in reducing injury recovery times, minimizing pain and relaxing an injured area to allow for better healing.
While more research needs to be done about the efficacy of soft tissue mobilization to support clinical claims, there are some studies that do demonstrate that the treatment is effective. In one trial, for example, researchers divided patients with tennis elbow into three groups. One group received corticosteroid injections, one group received soft tissue mobilization therapy and the final control group took a wait-and-see approach to healing.
The group that received soft tissue mobilization therapy had significantly higher positive outcomes than the group that was told to wait and see. The soft tissue mobilization group also had better positive outcomes in the long-term than the group that received injections, as the injection group had more relapses.
Because of the potential for positive outcomes and a minimal risk of side effects, especially in the long-term, soft tissue mobilization may be a good conservative treatment method for many patients.
Soft tissue mobilization typically occurs in an outpatient setting. The total appointment can take anywhere from 45 minutes to a few hours, depending on wait times and whether you need to be evaluated before treatment can begin. The actual session involving the soft tissue mobilization may take 10 to 30 minutes on average and depends on the tolerance of the patient and other factors.
Typically, this treatment isn’t a one-and-done option. You may need to return for multiple appointments, such as two a week or one every week for a month. How many sessions might be required depends on the extent of the injury, the overall health of the patient, how well the person heals and whether the patient follows through on any aftercare such as exercises at home.
In some ways, soft tissue mobilization is similar to a deep-tissue massage. The physical therapist or other provider will likely be putting some pressure on your muscles and other tissues. This may cause some discomfort during the treatment, though you should let your provider know if you feel actual pain. They will work with you to reduce the discomfort as much as possible.
Because they’re putting pressure on various areas, bruising may be possible. Even if you don’t see the bruising, you may feel sore following a soft tissue mobilization treatment session. Follow any recommendations for after care, which might include applying ice or taking over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen for temporary discomfort and swelling.
The treatment can be used for a wide variety of soft tissue injuries and issues. Some reasons a treatment provider might recommend soft tissue mobilization include:
Soft tissue mobilization is a fairly flexible treatment option, so it can be applied to more than these few types of injuries. Your provider can help you understand if it’s an option for treating your injuries or pain.