Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Manipulation (IASTM) is becoming more popular, especially with athletes. Despite being new on the scene (the first research paper wasn’t published until 1997), this technique has roots going back millenia. In ancient Greek and Roman times, a strigil, a small metallic instrument, was used for cleaning the body and working on muscles. Gua sha, a Chinese medicine technique, also involves pushing or scraping the skin to increase blood flow to soft tissues. Nowadays, IASTM can be used on conditions like carpal tunnel, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and much more.
IASTM is most commonly used by physical therapists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. This technique typically involves tools made of stainless steel or plastic; though historically, animal bone, horn, or stone were also used. These tools are used on various areas of the body to help reduce chronic tension often caused from injury or overuse. When an injury occurs, soft tissue and fascia, a spider-web-like material encasing various tissues in the body, heals through fibrosis and forms scar tissue in the process. IASTM seeks to help break up the fascial adhesions and scars, so the soft tissues can return to normal function. It has been shown to lower pain, increase range of motion, and bring more blood flow to the area. In general, therapy sessions are shorter than using cross-friction massage alone to address fascial adhesions
There are many different techniques and tools used in IASTM, so it’s important to find a therapist who has similar treatment goals to yours. Keep in mind, you will be working with your chosen therapist for a while. A series of sessions is generally four to twelve sessions over several weeks depending on the area of treatment and how well the body responds to therapy. This type of treatment can be painful for some, but the technique used is short and has been shown to help return the range of movement in most cases. IASTM is generally well-tolerated, but sometimes there can be bruising after the session. As always, be sure to discuss this with your health professional to see if this is right for you.
Cheatham, Scott W. et al. 2016. “The Efficacy of Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization: A Systematic Review.” The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 60(3): 200-211.
Cristina B. Seffrin, Nicole M. Cattano, Melissa A. Reed, Alison M. Gardiner-Shires. 2019. “Instrument-Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization: A Systematic Review and Effect-Size Analysis.” J Athl Train 1, 54(7): 808–821. doi: https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-481-17
Kim, Jooyoung, et al. 2017. “Therapeutic Effectiveness of Instrument-assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization for Soft Tissue Injury: Mechanisms and Practical Application.” Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 13(1): 12-22. doi:10.12965/jer.1732824.412
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