Kelly Mcall's lower back pain came out of nowhere and quickly became unbearable. "I was out for a run about five years ago, and it got so bad that I started crying," the elementary school teacher from Denver recalls. McFall, then 30, soon learned that she had a "dead" spinal disk—one that had lost all soft tissue and fluid. For nearly two years, she sought the help of surgeons and conventional back specialists. She tried a pain medication but says, "It made me throw up and didn't take the edge off." Epidermal steroid injections didn't help either, prompting one doctor to suggest spinal fusion. McFall declined. Finally a friend recommended that she look into a bodywork practice called Rolfing.
How it works
Developed in the 1950s as way to "unlock" pain, Rolfing (named for its founder, Ida Rolf) is distinct from massage and chiropractic work: While a massage therapist focuses on muscles and a chiropractor is concerned with the alignment of bones, a certified Rolfer manipulates the tissue, called fascia, that connects both. Rolfers don't rub-they apply steady pressure to key points on the body, releasing tension, reducing stress, and promoting balance.
Rolf, who received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University more than 30 years before popularizing her healing treatment, developed the practice based on her personal interest in movement theory and yoga, and after discovering an innate talent for helping friends free themselves of pain. She shaped her bodywork practice into a series of ten standardized sessions that remains the core of any Rolfing program.
Rolfers say their technique can relieve chronic pain, improve breathing, and ease symptoms of repetitive stress injuries, sciatica, and plantar fasciitis (chronic foot pain). "The basic premise is that if you change the posture and movement of the body, the functioning of the entire human is enhanced," says Brooke Thomas, a certified Rolfer from Brooklyn, N.Y. If you develop pain in your upper back, for example, a Rolfer will try to loosen and elongate the connective tissue in the chest and ribs. This should balance out the front of the body and reduce strain all over. Once obscure, Rolfing is gaining new popularity among athletes, dancers, and others who suffer from chronic pain. High-profile clients include Olympic figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Elvis Stojko, and a handful of professional sports teams have incorporated Rolfing into their athletes' physical therapy programs. As demand for the bodywork increases, so has the number of Rolfers. According to the Rolf Institute, in 1970 there were 350 certified practitioners in the world; in 2007 there were more than 1,550.
Three years ago, McFall began visiting Michael Polon, a Rolfer in Denver. "When I first went, I couldn't sleep at night because my back was so bad," she says. "On the second visit, the searing pain was gone." They set up hourly treatments every two weeks for a year.
During that period, Polan discovered that McFall's right leg was an eighth of an inch shorter than her left, a key to issues of pain and unevenness in her body. "He looked at where the problem was starting rather than saying, 'Let's just get rid of the pain,'" explains McFall. "There were times when I got off the table and I felt grounded in my feet, which I had not experienced in a long time. Every time I saw him, I felt better."
A typical session
During your first visit to a Rolfer, you can expect the program to begin with questions from the practitioner about prior diseases, injuries, and activities that trigger pain. In the bodywork sessions that follow, you lie on a table as the Rolfer presses on different spots, using fingers, fists, and elbows to loosen the fascia. "It should feel like I'm taking out the strain," says Mary Bond, author of The New Rules of Posture (Healing Arts Press, 2007) and a Rolfer from Los Angeles who studied under Rolf. "The fascia is like a responsive, textured clay that connects all parts," she adds. Your Rolfer will occasionally ask you to stand up and walk to see how your body is responding to the manipulations.
After a series of sessions, you should become more balanced and chronic pain may be relieved entirely. Some Rolfers suggest coming in for periodic tune-ups. "But it's very much up to the individual," says Thomas. "Some come back like clockwork every couple of months; others will get a tune-up only once or twice a year." To find a practitioner, visit rolf.org.
Now McFall sees Polon once a month-and despite her bad disk, she's able to bike 30 miles at a time. She hasn't returned to running, but she has taken up hiking again. The back pain is gone, says McFall, "and I am so thankful."