In most bodywork trainings – whether Rolfing® Structural Integration or massage – you are taught to stay away from nerves as they are "compression sites." In recent years, however, we've gained an important new understanding of:
1) how nerves can become inflamed and then "tethered" on soft tissue,
2) how inflamed or tethered nerves can be the source of alot of people's pain, and
3) how to work gently with the fascia of the nerve sheaths to ease the inflamation and release tethering.
What is an inflamed nerve? This simple metaphor (from Rolfer™ Mark Hutton) explains it beautifully: A happy nerve can roll and glide like a piece of dental floss as you stretch and move; an inflamed or tethered nerve is more like a pipe-cleaner that has a rough surface and will snag on tissue as you move, causing pain.
What causes inflamed nerves? Nerves seem to become inflamed as a result of trauma (auto accidents, falls, blows, dislocations...) and repetitive motion (think carpal tunnel) especially, but I think staying too long in any one posture without counter-balancing stretching can have an impact (e.g., sitting at a desk 8-9 hours a day without moving around).
How do you work with inflamed nerves? The original manual therapy techniques for working with inflamed and tethered nerves came from French osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral, and from Australian PTs. In our Rolfing community, the work has been developed further by Don Hazen – who has some great articles on his website – and by Jon Martine, who first introduced me to this work a couple of years ago. (Hazen believes that inflamed nerves are behind most postural issues too, not just pain issues.) The basic technique is to first identify the inflamed nerve – to sensitive touch, if will feel like a guitar string surrounded by tight or ropey muscle. Then one gently feels for where it is tethered, and works both in to the tension (like you would in undoing a tight knot, the essence of "indirect" technique), as well as gently stretching the nerve sheath out of the tension. This work can be done very gently like craniosacral work, or it can have more fascial work and stretch added making it closer to Rolfing. I find that how I work depends on each client's body and how the tissue responds.
In my Seattle Rolfing practice, I've seen how there are almost always inflamed nerves where the client says s/he has pain. This gentle nerve work, as well as more traditional Rolfing fascial work in the surrounding tissue, has been the missing link for many of my clients with chronic or acute pain. Luckily for our clients, the Rolfing community in general has shown great interest in learning manual therapy for the nerves, and because of this we published five articles on the topic in the June 2010 issue of Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute (I'm the Editor-in-Chief, so I helped influence that!). Some of these articles are available at The Ida P. Rolf Library of Structural Integration – do a search for the content "inflamed nerve."