Tools of the Trade: Muscle Energy Technique
Muscle Energy Techniques were discovered by Dr. Fred Mitchell D.O. Dr. Mitchell invented the series of techniques to help his son, Fred Mitchell Jr., learn basic biomechanics as he was also studying to become an Osteopath. What it evolved into from there is a powerful series of techniques that can be utilized on any muscle of the body to restore normal range of motion and mechanical function. Fred Mitchell Jr. is the instructor of Muscle Energy at the Canadian College of Osteopathy, which is the college I attended. Therefore, the muscle energy techniques I learned are straight from the horse’s mouth, with no “lost in translation” effect or dilution of experience.
You will most often hear the word “normalize” used by osteopaths and craniosacral therapists instead of the word “improve”. For example, it is the goal of Muscle Energy techniques to normalize the range of motion of a muscle. It is not useful to say “improve” since it is impossible to get a muscle moving better than perfectly…and normal = perfect.
How does it work?
First, a basic understanding of what is called the “stretch reflex” is necessary. When a muscle is stretched, it should easily move through its full range of motion until there is an endpoint felt in the joint, but, when a muscle is stretched very quickly or abruptly near the end range, there is a natural protective action that occurs to protect the muscle from being overstretched and damaged. This is called the stretch reflex. At a specific point of the muscle stretch, the muscle contracts to protect itself from damage. All of this happens in a neural loop from muscle to spinal cord, and back to muscle. It happens even before your brain is told it is doing it…even before you feel it. It is innate, it is powerful, and very effective.
When a muscle is in dysfunction due to injury or repetitive strain, there is an alteration in the function of the stretch reflex. The muscle is in a protective state, and the stretch reflex forces the muscle to contract much sooner than normal to hold the joint in an altered position. This altered joint position will take pressure off of a nerve to decrease pain sensation. Over time, the joint will usually normalize itself, and the pressure on the nerve will be released. Unfortunately, the body is extremely cautious and the stretch reflex of the muscle is held in a more sensitive position for longer than needed. This is what muscle tension is. This is what causes a tight, sore, achy muscle. The muscle is always contracted. It is always in a protective state.
Muscle Energy to the rescue!
What a Muscle Energy technique does is normalize the stretch reflex to its proper place. It normalizes the output of the motor neuron so that the muscle can instinctively relax to a normal state. No amount of massage or heat or stretching can do this. Muscle Energy techniques are the most effective form of treatment for normalizing a tight restricted muscle, and that is why the techniques have stood the test of time and are used by therapists around the world as the go to technique.
Of course, life is never quite that simple, is itJ. As mentioned earlier, the joint that the muscle is protecting must be healed first, or the muscle will continue to protect it. Therefore, Muscle Energy techniques are what we call “integrative” techniques. This means that after we spend most of the treatment correcting misaligned joints, compacted vertebra, and sheered viscera, Muscle Energy techniques are used to integrate these changes in the body and help them stay. Muscle Energy techniques are an integral part of Osteopathy and Craniosacral Therapy. Alone, Muscle Energy is a good treatment. Together with the rest of the Osteopathic Tools, they are astoundingly effective.
Jason Brandow, BSc TR, CST
Osteopathy Current Study & Thesis Writer
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