Astym treatment heals pain for the active and overweight
The treatments for ankle sprains, muscle strains and other problems in the soft tissues of the feet and legs are well known: rest, cold compresses, anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy. But sometimes the standard remedies don’t get rid of the pain. That’s when a lesser-known therapy called Astym (pronounced “A-stim” stands for “stimulation”) is another option.
This noninvasive process, developed in collaboration with institutions including IU Ball Memorial Hospital and Ball State University, as well as a wide range of medical specialists, focuses on eliminating the cause of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.
Sarah Macias, a physical therapist at Illinois Bone and Joint Institute in Glenview, underwent training to become certified in Astym. She uses ergonomically designed, handheld, blade-shaped acrylic tools during treatment to eliminate internal scar tissue.
“We use the analogy of spaghetti to explain the problem,” says Macias. “There are fibers in the muscle tissue that should be parallel to each other like spaghetti in a box so they all fit together and work together. When the muscles are overworked and injured, the body lays down scar tissue so the fibers lay down more haphazardly like cooked spaghetti and interrupt how the tissue can glide.”
Using scientifically developed movements, she runs the largest instrument up and down the skin to find a rough texture that indicates where the problem is occurring. Then smaller instruments are used on top of the skin to bring fresh blood flow and nutrients to the area, which stimulate regeneration of the soft tissue.
Macias points out that Astym is uncomfortable or painful for some patients during the procedure, but there is no pain after a therapy session. Astym treatments take place about twice a week over a period of four to six weeks. Because the procedure heals the dysfunctional tissue, the pain gradually diminishes. By the end of the treatment period, the tissue is healthy, and the pain is gone and will not return unless the area is reinjured.
“I can usually notice if the therapy is going to help patients after four or five sessions because when we remodel the tissue, it becomes much more pliable and stays that way unless it is reinjured,” says Macias. She also customizes stretching and strengthening exercises for the patients to do during the time period they are undergoing the treatment. “The benefit with Astym is that the patients are encouraged to stay active because you need to stretch the damaged tissue in the direction you want it to heal,” she explains.
Astym is effective, particularly for plantar fasciitis, the degeneration of the soft tissues that connect the heel and the toes. It is common among pro athletes, whose sports include running, jumping and landing as well as among people who choose running or dance aerobics as a regular part of their fitness routine, people who are overweight and those who have jobs that require long periods of walking or standing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 10 percent of people in the United States make about one million visits per year to medical professionals for treatment of plantar fasciitis. A variety of treatments includes wearing splints at night and adding orthotics in shoes for arch support. But in some cases, the problem becomes chronic, and the pain persists in spite of standard treatments. Astym can eliminate the pain completely because of its ability to stimulate the growth of healthy tissue.
Shea McClellin, a member of the Chicago Bears, suffered from the condition and is reported to have used Astym to treat it. It was also successful for Lincoln Park resident Larry Birch. He was used to running a couple of miles a few times a week then, about two-and-a-half years ago. When he was in his early fifties, he was running on a treadmill when he felt like he had strained a calf muscle.
“It almost felt like a rubber band was unwinding in my leg, and after 60 seconds, I had to stop running,” he says. He thought he had pulled a muscle, but after more than a year of standard treatments, he still felt the pain. He saw an orthopedic surgeon who took an MRI that showed that Birch had torn a muscle and that a ball of scar tissue had developed where the calf muscle attaches to the Achilles tendon. The specialist said surgery was not an option and that Birch would never be able to run again. What followed was about six months of physical therapy with no improvement. So his physical therapist at IBJ referred him to Macias for Astym.
“She could feel the scar tissue, and she basically scraped my leg,” he explains. “It was excruciating. I went home and ran up the stairs expecting to feel the pain I normally felt, and I felt nothing. I went back two days later, and in terms of relief, it was incredible. I tried fast walking on the treadmill, and then I started running, and I hadn’t run in more than two years.”
Birch, the CEO of a software company that manages clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies, is no longer undergoing the treatment and now regularly runs four miles with no problem sans a little tenderness in the spot where he used to feel far more pain.
“It’s a miracle treatment that cured me so fast and so well, and there’s no risk,” Birch says.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.