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Too often, shortcuts are taken that result in lost insight on the true nature of soft tissue dysfunction. But valuable manual therapy tools are within reach to clinicians of all disciplines. I was introduced to instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) several years ago, and have seen nothing short of incredible results across the board. One patient in particular stands out, Matt McGraw, who recently shared his experience with the public via mainstream social media.

ankylosing spondylitis HawkGrips IASTM Kate Miller PTA treatment

Matt McGraw (left), a patient with ankylosing spondylitis, has experienced “irreplaceable relief” thanks to HawkGrips treatment provided by Kate Miller (right), the physical therapist assistant who authored this article.

He was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis more than 20 years ago, and had received various forms of treatment over the years with less-than-marginal results. Matt came to me after being diagnosed by his doctor with cervicalgia and general shoulder pain, piggy-backing on his diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. He presented with most of his cervical and lumbar regions fused as a result of the latter condition, and demonstrated gross range-of-motion (ROM) limits in all planes both centrally and peripherally.

Matt was no longer able to participate in functional or recreational activities at an optimal level and could not find anything to improve his scenario. But IASTM utilizing HawkGrips education and instruments was then added to his plan of care. Matt’s first IASTM session lasted 10-15 minutes post-passive warm up on moist heat at a decreased temperature.

IASTM Treatment

Treatment included a non-aggressive, passive-recipient IASTM technique focused on the concepts of analgesia in combination with cross-link breakage and mechanotransduction. We then worked on soft-tissue lengthening techniques both passively and actively.

“After my first visit, I couldn’t believe the immediate results. I felt like I could breathe again,” said Matt. IASTM treatment was provided for 12 clinic visits, including twice a week for the first four weeks and once-weekly visits for the last four. Increasing levels of intensity and more dynamic techniques were integrated as he progressed.

Clinical Perspective

From a clinical perspective, with each passing visit Matt demonstrated a decrease in general pain levels, increase in cervical (yes, cervical) ROM, and a more upright perspective on his situation (both figuratively and physically). He reinvested himself in previous recreational activities such as weight-lifting and hiking. Matt was a new man! (Exclusive videos about his amazing results can be found on the HawkGrips YouTube Channel).

Associated with injury, traumatic or other, is soft tissue dysfunction. It can develop from several triggers and be detrimental on multiple functional levels. In Matt’s case, his spinal joints are affected by the ankylosing spondylitis and many have fused. With normal movements prohibited, muscles and other soft tissues both directly and indirectly connected to the sites of fusion had become rigid and prohibited as well.

Domino Effect

Think of it as a soft tissue domino effect, working its way up and down kinetic chains and fascial pathways. Something that initially had been pinpointed at local sites now negatively influenced Matt on a global scale. The IASTM treatments were molded to fit his specific goals, and we developed a detailed flexibility and strengthening program incredibly unique and effective for his particular needs.

The exercises ranged from yoga to kickboxing, and Pilates to BodySculpt. With the one-on-one time possible thanks to the efficiency of IASTM, I was able to reach far beyond my normal means to develop a program for both the clinic and home. Matt’s posture improved, he gained several degrees of measurable cervical and lumbar ROM, and also demonstrated better results on the lateral flexion, modified Schober’s, and chest expansion tests after just a few weeks of treatment.

All of this in addition to the significant pain relief. Matt related that the treatment progression felt like peeling away an onion at the many layers of his medical complexities. At discharge, he came to me and said, “The relief I’ve felt from IASTM is irreplaceable. I feel like I have a big part of my life back.”

As a clinician, words like this make be proud to work in the physical therapy field, a profession (like others) that provides effective therapeutic intervention. Being educated by my mentors and the HawkGrips organization while utilizing the instruments has been a wonderful addition to my knowledge base. I include IASTM daily in environments ranging from outpatient orthopedic to skilled nursing. I highly recommend checking out the HawkGrips website or taking a look at my YouTube Channel for additional information and examples.

Kate Miller works as a physical therapist assistant for Adventure Healthcare Solutions Inc. in San Diego. She is also a HawkGrips course instructor, an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) certified clinical instructor, and a member of the California Physical Therapy Association (CPTA) Political Action Committee (PAC) Board of Trustees who serves as the San Diego liaison.

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