Ask Athletic Trainer Sara Rock: How Do Manual Therapies Boost Sports Performance?
Athletic trainer Sara Rock frequently sees overuse injuries among her student athletes. She explains the manual therapies she uses, and describes how they contribute to better outcomes for the athletes she treats.
“Range of motion is critical in athletic competition,” says Sara. “Think of the Olympic swimming meets—where the difference between first and second place is the touch of a finger. If muscles are restricted, you aren’t going to have the full capability to perform at the highest level.”
The repetitive motions of swimmers, runners, and many other athletes make them susceptible to overuse injuries that can cause scar tissue to form, restricting muscle movement. “Overuse injuries tend to be chronic injuries,” Sara explains. “The value of manual hands-on therapies is physical and mental. These therapies target soft tissue by breaking down scar tissue and increasing blood flow. And because massage is such a hands-on treatment, it makes my students feel as if they are getting more out of the treatment—that I am working one-on-one with them and actually addressing the issue.”
Sara uses three manual therapies to treat athletic injuries and improve performance.
General massage. “Massage relaxes the muscles, works out inflammation, breaks up some of the scar tissue, and increases blood flow to the area being treated,” explains Sara. “I use a number of different massage techniques, from a light massage to work out inflammation to deeper work into the tissue to break up scar tissue and help promote healing. This isn’t the lengthy, enjoyable spa treatment that most people think of when they hear ‘massage.’ My time with each student is limited, but 5 to 10 minutes of concentrated massage is enough to deliver benefit.”
Graston Technique®. “This method of soft tissue therapy has been used by physical therapists, athletic trainers, and physicians for a number of years,” says Sara. “Graston involves use of metal tools of various sizes and shapes with beveled edges designed for the tissue being targeted. These tools take some of the pressure off my own hands and fingers, and enable me to work precisely into the muscle to break down scar tissue. This technique is also known as muscle scraping. It’s an effective way to treat a variety of soft tissue injuries, including ankle, hamstring, and quad injuries.”
Active tension release. “This is like massage, but a little more aggressive,” explains Sara. “I use active tension release with my swimmers experiencing muscle tightness and pain that decreases their range of motion. I like to begin by heating the muscles to promote relaxation before treatment. Then I take the athlete through the full range of motion while following the muscle fibers, feeling for tension, or knots. I’ll have athletes repeat a full muscle action four or five times, while I use my thumb to dive deeper down and work on the targeted area where their motion is restricted. It is aggressive and can be painful, but by the end of the treatment, my kids feel looser, more relaxed, and have restored motion. When they tell me, ‘Yeah. That feels really good! I don’t even feel those knots anymore!’ it makes my day.
“My goal is to make sure that each and every athlete is performing safely,” Sara concludes. “At Summit, we are offering a comprehensive range of sports medicine care. Treatments like manual therapy contribute to our commitment to help our athletes succeed on and off the field.”
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Ask the Expert: Sports Medicine Video Series