Rolfing is a type of deep tissue manipulation that aims to relieve tension. Proponents state that it reorganizes connective tissue, or fascia, resulting in health benefits. However, there is a lack of evidence to support this claim.

Fascia is a type of tissue that surrounds muscles, nerves, and organs. The inventor of Rolfing, Dr. Ida Rolf, believed that working with this tissue could correct misalignments, which she viewed as the cause of various health problems.

In this article, we look at Rolfing in more detail, including the potential benefits, risks, and cost of the treatment.

A Rolfing practitioner holding a person's foot as they lie on a table.Share on Pinterest
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Rolfing is a form of deep tissue manipulation. The name comes from its inventor, Dr. Rolf, who referred to it as “Structural Integration.”

The idea behind Rolfing is that the body works best when all its parts are in alignment. When the body is out of alignment, it moves in a way that is unbalanced, which can result in discomfort and pain.

Dr. Rolf also believed that this type of disharmony results in the body having to work harder against gravity, giving a person less energy.

Rolfing aims to address these problems by loosening and manipulating fascia, which is the connective tissue that surrounds bones, organs, nerves, and muscles. Practitioners claim that by working with this tissue, they can reorganize parts of the body that are out of alignment and so resolve medical conditions.

Dr. Rolf began writing about Structural Integration in the 20th century. Her background was in biochemistry. She received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1920, before going on to research organic chemistry at the Rockefeller Institute.

Although she did not have a medical degree, Dr. Rolf was a scientist who wanted to find treatments for the chronic conditions with which she and others were living. She began experimenting with alternative health practices, such as yoga and chiropractic, to try to understand the body’s structure.

Using observations from her studies, Dr. Rolf came to believe that the body works best when the bones are in alignment. From there, she developed her theories about Structural Integration.

Rolfing and massage are similar in that they use tissue manipulation to benefit a person’s health. However, they involve different techniques and usually have different goals.

Although massage might promote relaxation, ease muscle tension, or even reduce certain medical symptoms, such as back pain, people do not always use it for medical purposes. When they do, it is usually in addition to other treatments.

Rolfing, on the other hand, aims to treat medical conditions. It also has more elements, and sessions involve more than tissue manipulation. According to the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute website, Rolfing practitioners:

  • Palpate: Practitioners touch the tissues through the skin, looking for indications of imbalances in tissue texture, quality, or temperature.
  • Discriminate: Next, Rolfing practitioners claim to separate layers of fascia that have become dislodged from the correct position or stuck to muscles.
  • Integrate: Finally, the sessions finish with integration, which is when the practitioner aims to improve the relationship between body parts in accordance with Dr. Rolf’s theories about movement and gravity. This can involve movement education as well as tissue manipulation.

Although people can find Rolfing relaxing and cathartic, the Institute says that these benefits are only byproducts of the sessions.

The Dr. Ida Rolf Institute claims that Rolfing helps by:

  • releasing tension from connective tissues
  • resolving chronic pain
  • altering and improving posture
  • improving flexibility
  • reducing negative effects of stress
  • increasing energy
  • enhancing neurological function
  • creating emotional harmony

Very few studies confirm these claims.

An older 2014 study looked at whether Rolfing could help with myofascial pain syndrome, which is when a person has pain in the muscles or fascia in a specific location. The pain can occur in response to specific movements or muscle triggers, sometimes in a different part of the body to the location of the trigger.

The study involved 40 participants, 20 of whom received Rolfing therapy while 20 did not. The control group saw no improvements in their pain scores, while the people who received Rolfing therapy saw significant improvements.

However, a 2015 study tested Rolfing in 46 people with lower back pain. The authors concluded that Rolfing did not substantially relieve pain.

This suggests that Rolfing may help with myofascial pain but possibly not with other conditions. However, both studies were very small, so it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from either.

Some people may find Rolfing beneficial, but there is currently no strong scientific evidence that it can cure any medical condition.

Rolfing has similarities with massage, which is generally safe. However, relying on Rolfing as a treatment for musculoskeletal pain that has no clear cause could pose a risk to a person’s health.

Some causes of musculoskeletal pain are progressive, meaning that they get worse over time. Others, such as osteoporosis, require medical treatment to prevent complications.

If a person has new or persistent pain, they should not try Rolfing without speaking with a doctor first. Only a doctor can diagnose the root cause of the pain.

Rolfing involves a set of sessions known as the Ten-Series. These sessions focus on releasing tension in different areas of the body before moving into the integration phase.

The Ten-Series includes the following steps:

  • Session one: The first session focuses on loosening and rebalancing the top layers of connective tissue in the neck, diaphragm, rib cage, arms, spine, upper legs, and hamstrings.
  • Session two: The second session works on the arms, rib cage, diaphragm, upper legs, hamstrings, spine, and neck, with the goal of providing stability through balancing the foot and lower leg muscles.
  • Session three: In this session, the practitioner aims to understand how a person’s head, shoulder girdle, and hips line up when the person is standing.
  • Session four: This session focuses on the areas between the inside arch of a person’s foot and the bottom of their lower pelvis.
  • Session five: The fifth session aims to balance surface and deep abdominal muscles with the curve of the back.
  • Session six: This session works on movement in the legs to build support for the pelvis and lower back.
  • Session seven: This session works on the person’s head and neck.
  • Sessions eight and nine: Both of these sessions focus on the integration of movement in various areas of the body to enhance coordination.
  • Session ten: The last session focuses on integration, order, and balance throughout the body.

The Dr. Ida Rolf Institute claims that a person receiving Rolfing therapy may feel some discomfort because the technique aims to relieve tension deep within the connective tissue.

However, the organization notes that Rolfing should not hurt or cause additional pain to those with preexisting pain.

Below, we answer some common questions about Rolfing therapy.

Is Rolfing covered by insurance?

Many health insurance companies do not cover Rolfing therapy, although there may be some exceptions.

How much does Rolfing cost?

Rolfing costs vary depending on location, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they usually fall within the range of $100–300 per session.

Can you do Rolfing yourself?

It is not possible for a layperson to try Rolfing themselves at home. However, they can try self-massage. Devices such as massage balls and foam rollers can also release tension in muscles and connective tissue.

A person should always speak with a doctor before trying an alternative or at-home treatment for a medical condition. Massage and myofascial release are not appropriate for all types of musculoskeletal pain.

Rolfing is a type of therapy that involves deep manipulation of the body’s connective tissues. It may help alleviate both muscular and psychological tension to realign and restore balance in the body. The course of therapy involves a series of 10 sessions, each of which has different areas of focus.