What is Soft Tissue Mobilization Therapy?

Soft tissue mobilization therapy on the arm using a stainless steel tool.

Before we talk about soft tissue mobilization therapy, we have to talk about soft tissue. As an integral part of the body’s anatomy, soft tissue surrounds the organs and connects and supports other tissues. It consists of the muscles, blood vessels, tendons, fat, and fascia (the thin casing of connective tissue surrounding and holding everything in place).

Damage or injury to the soft tissues can result in bruising, swelling, and pain. Stress injuries, bursitis, and tendonitis are common diagnoses. Soft tissue injuries can be caused by trauma, such as an accident, but are often overused without adequate recovery time.

 

Recovering from Soft Tissue Injury

Recovering from an injury always depends on the degree and type of injury. Degrees of soft tissue injury is classed by severity:

  • Mild (Grade 1) — tenderness and swelling
  • Moderate (Grade 2) — partial tears that make the application of force or weight on a joint difficult and painful
  • Severe (Grade 3) — complete tears requiring significant recovery time

Mild soft tissue injuries can usually recover on their own with rest and time or by following the RICE protocol of rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Depending on the age and overall health of the patient, that’s often enough — as long as additional trauma doesn’t make things worse.

For injuries classed as moderate or severe, however, you may need greater precautions and enhanced treatments. These injuries can take longer to heal than a broken bone and can be career-enders for professional athletes. Soft tissue tears, for example, recover by developing dense scar tissue that can diminish strength, limit the range of motion, and remain at greater risk of reinjury.

Soft Tissue Mobilization Therapy Beyond RICE

Optimized recovery and prevention of reinjury are key goals of physical therapy. A physical therapist considers the nature of the soft tissue injury to devise a treatment plan that helps the patient decrease their pain, prevent reinjury, accelerate the healing process, improve mobility, and regain strength.

Soft tissue mobilization is a common type of treatment relied on by physical therapists for treating these injuries. This technique involves hands-on manipulation to break down or reduce adhesions and restore functionality. Soft tissue mobilization can involve a number of methods, including: 

  • Sustained pressure
  • Unlocking spiral
  • Direct oscillations
  • Perpendicular mobilization
  • Parallel mobilization
  • Perpendicular strumming
  • Friction massage

These may seem at first like basic moves available from any massage therapist, but licensed physical therapists who use soft tissue mobilization have advanced training in anatomy and physiology, with a much greater understanding of how manipulation impacts function.

 

How Effective is Soft Tissue Mobilization Therapy?

Clinical research on soft tissue mobilization is limited, with many claims of its benefits remaining unsupported. However, anecdotal evidence does show that patients often find relief for their strains, sprains, and other soft tissue injuries when treated by a physical therapist with soft tissue therapy.

When you first suffer a soft tissue injury, rest and possibly ice, compression, and elevation should be your first line of defense. Try to avoid aggravating the injury, which is easy to do — soft tissue injuries can start to feel better before they are fully recovered, which makes us overconfident and prone to reinjury.

If your injury doesn’t heal on its own, or if the pain or associated dysfunction is too much to deal with, then it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with a physical therapist. Soft tissue mobilization might be an important part of your treatment plan.