Is Rolfing bullshit?
November 27, 2014 9:21 PM   Subscribe

How legitimate is rolfing? Wikipedia says it is pseudo-scientific.

Is there any objective proof that rolfing works? Is it only a placebo effect? Is it a waste of money? Would you recommend it to anyone?

Anecdotes welcome, evidence preferred.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not entirely sure why you don't believe Wikipedia, which backs up the statements you referenced with multiple citations. Your question is somewhat unanswerable, because if you don't believe the citations in Wikipedia, there's nothing better we can show you.

An alternate way of viewing this is that if Rolfing was effective, insurance companies would clamor to cover it. Rolfing is significantly cheaper than traditional medicine (in part because it doesn't actually do anything), so it would be to the insurance companies' benefit to try to get you to use it for health care as much as possible.

If you don't believe the citations in Wikipedia, the fact that insurance companies don't push Rolfing as a medical treatment should indicate to you that the medical consensus is that the practice is clinically useless.
posted by saeculorum at 9:28 PM on November 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

My dear friend did a course of rolfing, and she really liked it. She has persistent posture and back issues, among other things, and the rolfing helped a lot (so did extensive pilates and overall fitness efforts at the same time.) I don't think it was the specific rolfing technique-- I think the benefit was gained merely from very heavy massage and bodily awareness gained from massage. Probably any massage will do it if your practitioner is listening to your complaint and actively rubbing on whatever affects it.

WebMD indicates that there is no current scientific evidence for rolfing, and no licensure or exact standard for rolfers. So yeah, it's probably bullshit, but massages in general feel good and can help you feel better. I agree that if it really cured something, everyone would do it. My main question is whether it's a safe to massage as heavy as they do, but it seems relatively safe, so I say go for it if you want an intense massage.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:50 PM on November 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you find a great practitioner and it works for you - it is not bullshit.

That said

I kinda place it in the same category as "Reiki" - so, kinda bullshit. Maybe less so, because it seems to be a form of massage, which is not bullshit.

Let me explain further

I've had AWESOME acupuncture that definitely works. I've had crappy acupuncture by not so great practitioners that was totally ineffective.

Ditto, massage. There is a technique called Setai that is kinda like Shiatsu, but so so much better - again, great practitioner experience.

The only way your Lymph Nodes (a major part of your immune system ) move and clear themselves of build up from white blood cell workings is through physical movement of your muscles - so massage, general exercise, and techniques like Yoga all enhance this function.

You'll have to try it and report back. Or just do something that IS proven effective for certain ailments like Yoga, Acupuncture, or some type of massage that speaks to your issues.
posted by jbenben at 9:58 PM on November 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Upon preview , I'll add Pilates to that list. I have no experience, but people equate the results to Yoga, FWIW.
posted by jbenben at 9:59 PM on November 27, 2014

It's soft tissue work, basically myo-fascial release but it's a very regimented whole body approach to it with quite a bit of mythos/ you-must-do-the-whole-system talk. I get myo fascial work done regularly because it helps me a lot. It has basically cured my IT band syndrome. However I just see a regular old soft tissue worker who pretty much fixes what ails you in one or two sessions and sends you home with a list of stretches and exercises instead of a rolfer because rolfing is built around a very expensive and intensive system of working on your whole body and I don't feel I really need that. Also the training is different, the person I see is an MD and works pretty much exclusively with athletes and is kind of an MD/ PT/ body worker in one. He is really into you fixing your own patterns of movement with his help. I did try rolfing for a while and so I have a basis for comparison, and I don't think the training was nearly as broad based, it seems very focused on just the rolfing regimen with less emphasis on follow up. I do know a lot of PTs and trainers work with rolfers so that might be a good way to go if you do it. After all, nothing will work if you go home and slump around as you did before or keep running witha crooked gait or whatever messed you up in the first place.

Personally I find myo fascial and trigger point work to be the only helpful kind of soft tissue work in terms of really fixing things like scar tissue and stiffness. I have had good results. Massage is nice but not very long lasting for me.
posted by fshgrl at 10:14 PM on November 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

No it's not BS. It definitely, definitley works but.... it depends what claims you want to focus on.

Wickapedia says: "Rolfing is essentially identical to Structural Integration."

Well, yes. That's why a lot of Certified Rolfers also call it structural integration. They often use the terms interchangably.

Rolfing is the only type of massage the works for me. It's strong and deep and really gets into the muscle fibers. I find foam rollers to be way more effective after a rolfing session. Also for loosening up scar tissue it is a god-send. And unlike other types of massage in which the results tend to go away entirely in a day or two, I find that the results I get from Rolfing last way longer.
posted by rancher at 10:36 PM on November 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I dated a girl whose mom had severe rheumatoid arthritis, and when she began a regimen of frequent rolfing treatments, she became functional again in ways she hadn't been in years.

posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:13 AM on November 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

More anecdata, but observable. My mom did it way back in the day. At first she was not sure what it had accomplished, but then she noticed that her shoes now wore normally. Previously her shoes had worn extremely unevenly due to pronation I guess. After rolfing her shoes wore evenly. This effect held for the rest of her life, many years. I saw the shoes that proved it.
posted by jcworth at 5:45 AM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there any objective proof that rolfing works?

No. It, like any other quack remedy, is supported by anecdotes. It's like when someone at church tells me that she prayed to St. Phanourios and then she found whatever she had lost. A lot of people share similar experiences.

Like saeculorum said, if the Pubmed links in the Wikipedia article are unpersuasive evidence, it is hard to know what evidence would convince you. Alternative medicine is called alternative medicine because it isn't medicine. There isn't alternative engineering or alternative mathematics.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:01 AM on November 28, 2014 [14 favorites]

There is no evidence that it works. It might still make you feel better, via placebo effect, coincidence, an as-yet-unstudied effect, or just the general psychological sense of well-being that can come from positive attention from another human being. But none of those things are enough to claim it works. And a lot of the mythology of it is very clearly not correct, so if there is any effect, it is not for the reasons practitioners believe.
posted by Nothing at 6:24 AM on November 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Rolfing is a type of massage pretty much so that kind of makes no sense. If it works for you, you'll know right away.
posted by fshgrl at 11:42 AM on November 28, 2014

The question is, of course, what does it mean for a treatment to "work?" If the claim is that a treatment cures a specific type of malady by some mechanism, that it makes one "feel better" is not evidence that it's effective. That's why so many massage-like treatments go unquestioned. It just feels good when people touch you.
posted by klanawa at 1:13 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's psuedo-science in the sense that its core premise - bound up in the bio-mechanical model of the body - has been superseded by what we've learned from neuroscience, which is in part that manual therapy insomuch as it does anything works on the nervous system and not the tissues. This is not widely known or accepted, actually, for the usual financial reasons and some cultural baggage gifted to us by Descartes in terms of how he thought our bodies worked. If you want to do a deep dive into that rabbit hole go check out the forums at, which is populated primarily by skeptic-minded physical therapists.

When someone presses on another person's skin, and this results in a reduction in pain and change in muscle tone (muscles softening) - this is entirely and completely a choice by the nervous system of the person being touched. You cannot force-deform a person's tissue by pressing on it without causing bruising and injury. If a person has poor posture, whatever that is, this is because that person's nervous system is commanding its body's muscles to hold the body in exactly that way. It can be adaptive or maladaptive. Usually it's adaptive, actually. If you tell all this to someone over at the Rolf institute they would laugh at you, of course.

Most manual therapy - and even a fair bit of western medicine(!) - is driven by the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a legitimate treatment, however, and I recommend watching this interview done by Richard Dawkins to learn more about what placebo really means.

All manual therapy, including physical therapy, has a sketchy relationship with science in the sense that outcome studies are rarely conclusive, because, like I said, it's mostly the placebo effect involved. This does not mean they are all a waste of time - all the positive anecdotal experiences listed in this thread itself are legit if people felt they were legit. This is because your subjective experience of your body - everything you experience from your senses - are entirely a creation of your nervous system. There is no intrinsic link between the physical world and how you experience it. For the same reason that the color red looks the way it does because your brain decided it to be so - things like pain and how the world feels on your skin is similarly a product of your brain, and thus entirely subjective. So if someone says "I felt better after that treatment" it can only be true. The treatment caused some processing change to take place in the nervous system.

This is often problematic of course because if the treatment claims are totally bogus - even if the outcome is positive - the money involved may be needlessly excessive and the treatments themselves unnecessarily risky. It's also problematic when you're treating issues that are primarily physical - cancer or damaged heart valves, for example - where the placebo effect might have a positive impact on the immune system, but where real treatments (cutting out tumors, etc) are the better option.
posted by MillMan at 12:22 AM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

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