Can You Release the IT Band?

I received a great question to start off our 2022 posts…

What are your thoughts about using the word “release” to explain how to treat a tightness in the lateral line of leg where the IT band lives. I I was taught that this connective tissue is never really released, we would just fall over!

I understand that it needs to be moved, mobilized, hydrated etc… am I just parsing words and being too nerdy?

Thank you, and all the best!

Sarah

Love this question!  I always appreciate the opportunity to clean up my own verbiage when working with students.  Let me share with you my understanding.  

First let’s make sure we are all on the same page. The Iliotibial band (IT band) is a strong fibrous tissue (thickened fascia/connective tissue) that begins at the top of the pelvis called the iliac crest, traveling down the outside of the thigh, over the outside of the knee joint to connect to the top of the tibia.

For dancers a primary concern are the muscles that connect to and influence the IT Band. The gluteus maximus, medius and tensor fascia lata muscles (which includes their fascia) connect into the IT Band. Of particular importance to dancers is the TFL, the primary inward rotator of the hip. In my experience there often is a connection between overly tight TFL’s, and slight anterior tilt of the pelvis with increased tension and tenderness in the IT band area.

Fascia, which is dense connective tissue, keeps everything separated yet connected. Fascia surrounds all the bones, muscles and organs and ties these structures together. You are training the fascia of the muscles through your movement or lack of movement. The fascia that surrounds muscles isn’t as thick and dense as the fascia of the IT band. The fascia/connective tissue that is called the IT band is important for our gait and keeping the pelvis and leg connected and working well during walking.

The deep, thickened fascia of the IT band doesn’t release in the same way that we talk about releasing muscles. We talk about releasing muscles that are overly contracted or shortened in hopes of increasing their length. Frankly, you don’t want the IT band to release and change length, it needs to be VERY strong in order to stabilize and support the pelvis on the legs.

I found references to an article written in 1931 from the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery by C.M. Gratz, MD about the fascia of the IT band. He wrote “The specific gravity of fascia lata is about 1.31 and the average ultimate tensile strength is approximately 7,000 pounds per square inch. Soft steel has a specific gravity of 7.83 and an ultimate strength of about 45,000 pounds per square inch. Thus fascia lata is nearly as strong as soft steel, weight for weight.”

Okay, so it needs to be (and is) very strong in order to stabilize and support. But what about foam rolling you ask? Aren’t you stretching or releasing the IT Band? Short answer…no. Can you release tension in the muscles that connect into that fascia? Yes. That’s where most dancers would do well to focus their attention, especially on the TFL, which inwardly rotates the femur at the hip. Are you working with myofascial triggerpoints when you are foam rolling out the lateral hip? Yes.

Perhaps we could more accurately suggest, let’s release any excessive tension in the IT band area – being clear it isn’t the IT band that is releasing, but rather they are working with triggerpoints from multiple muscle areas. Catch the front edge and roll on the lateral quadricep muscle, or a little further back and explore the hamstrings. Of course work with the glutes and the TFL also.

I foam roll often and actively stretch and mobilize. It’s a good way to keep me aware of what’s happening in my body and take care of imbalances before they become problems.

Tension and/or challenges in the IT band are a reflection of what’s happening in alignment and movement. So look more globally, figure out if there are stability or mobility issues at the hip and ankle, and many of the IT band issues will resolve themselves.

Getting back to Sarah’s initial questioning, instead of saying to release the IT Band (which we now know is impossible) focus instead on releasing any excessive muscular tension of the hip muscles while improving their mobility and stability.

To your success,

Deborah

PS: Please send in YOUR question for an upcoming post!

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