Don’t do cross friction massage on your Achilles tendon!

Oh for goodness sake, how is it possible that so many people believe that transverse friction or cross friction massage can cause a healing response in the Achilles tendon? It does not and if a therapist tells you that it does then they don’t understand the science behind tendons and how they heal. I’ve just come off a call with a patient who flared his Achilles tendon up after he followed the advice of 2 well-known therapists on YouTube who advocate it as “the best possible treatment” for Achilles pain. So I’ve decided to write a post to debunk 2 of the most common myths about cross friction massage and Achilles tendinopathy.



In this article:

  • Myth 1: Cross friction massage stimulates the healing process by stirring up inflammation

  • Myth 2: You break down the scar tissue in the Achilles tendon when you do cross friction massage

  • Cross frictions helped my Achilles pain – how do you explain that?

  • Why I am so dead set against cross frictions

I've also discussed it in this video:



Myth 1: Cross friction massage stimulates the healing process by stirring up inflammation


I was actually also taught this rubbish when I was a student back in 2002. There wasn’t any research to back it up – it was just what was hypothesised to happen. Since then truckloads of research has been done on Achilles tendinopathy and how tendons heal and we now know that it doesn’t need an inflammatory response in order to heal. What the tendon needs is a carefully graded strength training programme – it’s the load that you place on the tendon that stimulates it to produce new healthy collagen fibres to replace the old damaged ones. Any therapist who tells you that cross frictions can heal your Achilles tendon through stimulating an inflammatory response has not kept up to date with the current research.


Myth 2: You break down the scar tissue in the Achilles tendon when you do cross friction massage


You don’t form scar tissue when you have Achilles tendinopathy or tendonitis. Yes, you can have a lump in your tendon, but that’s not scar tissue. That lump is caused by the cells in the tendon that changes shape and becomes disorganised. I explain it in more detail in the video but I’ve also previously written a whole post just about what exactly causes that lump to form. Once again it is strength training that is needed to stimulate the tendon to produce new cells and organise them in the correct way.



Cross frictions helped my Achilles pain – how do you explain that?


I’m not disputing that massage can decrease pain and for some people cross frictions can have a pain dulling effect in the short term, only for the pain to then return when they start doing their sport again. A decrease in pain does not equal healing and massage does not evoke a healing response in tendons – it’s just not how the pathology works.


Also consider the fact that most people will be doing cross frictions together with other treatments e.g. resting from sport. We know that rest also works really well to calm Achilles pain down, so it may be that you’re wrongly attributing the positive drop in pain to doing cross frictions. Rest, by the way, also doesn’t heal tendons – it just calms the acute pain down. If you want your Achilles to heal, you have to do a graded strength training programme or else you may find yourself stuck in a Boom & Bust cycle of pain.


Why I am so dead set against cross frictions


Because at best it’s causing patients to waste time on useless treatments when they could rather be following a treatment plan that is supported by the most up to date research. At worst it can make a patient’s pain much worse and actually delay their recovery as they have to wait for their tendons to calm down again before they can start rehab.


Let me know if you have any questions. Need more help with your Achilles injury? You’re welcome to consult us online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

Best wishes

Maryke


About the Author:

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist and holds an MSc in Sports Injury Management. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.




References:

  1. Cook, J. L. (2018). "Ten treatments to avoid in patients with lower limb tendon pain." British Journal of Sports Medicine 52(14): 882-882.

  2. Cook JL, Rio E, Purdam CR, et al. Revisiting the continuum model of tendon pathology: what is its merit in clinical practice and research? British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:1187-1191.

  3. Silbernagel, K. G., Brorsson, A., & Lundberg, M. (2011). The Majority of Patients With Achilles Tendinopathy Recover Fully When Treated With Exercise Alone: A 5-Year Follow-Up. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(3), 607–613.


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