Only connect...

The first time Andrea J. walked into Mimi Polvino's Queen Anne fitness studio, she was in such excruciating pain that she felt as if her body were "locked."

While eight months pregnant, Andrea (a Queen Anne resident whose name has been changed) had suffered a serious car accident. Following a normal birth, she began to experience pain in her lower back and hip/pelvic area so severe that she couldn't play with her infant son. She could barely move. She had serious digestive problems. Sex was too painful to contemplate. On top of it all, her doctor told her that her pain was "all in her head."

But Polvino's use of an alternative approach to treating these problems, known as "connective therapy," freed Andrea from her distress. And it once again validated for Polvino, an eight-year Queen Anne resident, the legitimacy of an alternative approach to therapy she has worked during her 14 years as a licensed massage practitioner to understand, develop and apply.

"I see people like [Andrea] all the time," said Polvino, a lithe, athletic woman brimming with exuberant energy. "Her situation was particularly difficult, but it's also very common."

Polvino emphasizes that the first step for anyone with physical pain or health concerns is to consult their doctor. But sometimes traditional Western approaches to medicine don't solve, or don't acknowledge, the problem. For many people in that predicament, connective therapy is turning out to be a viable option. The treatment and the philosophy driving it have proven to work for many types of people - from athletes to new mothers to sufferers of traumatic soft-tissue injuries.

Connective therapy is built on the ancient wellness concept that everything in the body is connected to everything else. An imbalance in one area will, by definition, have an effect on other systems. Sometimes the perceived location of pain has little or no apparent relationship to the true source, which is why treating the pain - the symptom, rather than the source - often becomes an expensive and dispiriting exercise in futility.

The goal of connective therapy is to use unique combinations of bodywork and massage techniques to restore the structural integration of the body by releasing soft-tissue restrictions and imbalances due to stress, trauma and the overuse and misuse of soft tissue in the body. (Soft tissue is defined as the muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves.)

Initial therapy focuses on the system known as the fascia, which is the tough, fibrous sheath that covers every muscle in the body. The fascia, made of the same material as tendons, ligaments and scar tissue, both protects muscles and allows them to glide over each other to work smoothly. If the fascia is soft and supple, muscles move easily and the body remains in structural balance. But trauma, stress or overuse can cause the fascia to become rigid and start to stick.

Once connective therapy has begun to release "stuck" fascia and other soft tissue, the enhanced movement and restored balance readies the client to move on to the next stage of his or her individualized therapy plan, which is strengthening the muscles in the body's core. And that's where Sue Bream, one of Polvino's two partners in Applied Health & Bodyworks on Queen Anne, steps in.

Bream, a certified personal trainer, focuses on the core muscles, from the rib cage down to the pelvic girdle (hips). Since the body's center of gravity is located here, balance and ease of movement depends on strong muscles all through this region. But this isn't a sweaty, body-builders' environment, as Bream is quick to point out. Exercise balls, foam rollers, tubes and free weights all have a place in the airy exercise studio.

Another avenue is pain management, the specialty of acupuncturist Denise Fiedler. "I work on movement, Sue concentrates on strength training and Denise focuses on pain management," Polvino said. "They all work together, and we've structured the studio here to take advantage of the way these disciplines interconnect for our clients."

How well does it work? Magnolia resident Edith Nilsen is an élite Over-50 soccer player who suffered a common foot injury known as plantars fasciitis. In this syndrome, the fascia covering the bottom of the foot becomes inflamed, and walking, let alone athletic activity, becomes impossibly painful. Nilsen described the pain as akin to walking on broken glass, and it reduced her to hobbling around on crutches - an ignoble (and unacceptable) fate for an extraordinarily fit mother of five.

After three treatments at Polvino's studio, her pain disappeared and Nilsen has returned to the soccer pitch in Senior Olympic-level national competition. "Mimi helped me get back in the game," Nilsen said.

ALTHOUGH POLVINO has practiced connective therapy on Queen Anne since she opened her studio in 1998, her interest dates back to the early 1990s, when she lived in Philadelphia.

Following a difficult divorce, she turned to a heavy workout routine to channel her energy. Overtraining led to symptoms that left her nearly paralyzed with pain. And, once again, in the absence of a symptom her doctor could treat with traditional medicine, the physician simply told her that her issues were psychosomatic.

At about the same time, she began taking classes to become a licensed massage practitioner, and met someone whose ideas changed her life and her approach to her new profession.

Erica Fletcher was a physical therapist who counted among her clients professional athletes and members of the Pennsylvania Ballet. She specialized in treating pelvic dysfunction. Fletcher began working on Polvino using techniques similar to those she applied to the dancers. And as she worked, she explained to her patient the concept of core therapy. "She said, 'No wonder you're in pain - your pelvic girdle is radically out of alignment,'" Polvino remembers.

The effect was dramatic. After several months of treatment, Polvino's pain subsided, and she was able to return to a now-reasonable exercise regimen.

Polvino was so taken with the results that she focused her massage education on the concept. Even before she graduated, Fletcher began referring ballet dancers to Polvino, and before long Polvino was working on other professional athletes, including members of the Philadelphia Eagles football team.

Yes, connective therapy applies to men, too. One of Polvino's Queen Anne-area clients is an amateur race driver who suffered mild whiplash in a crash earlier this year. After his doctor examined him and determined there was no serious injury, the racer scheduled several sessions with all three partners at Applied Health & Bodyworks; he saw a rapid improvement in the dizziness and neck pain he had experienced in the days immediately following the accident. He combined that regimen with visits to his chiropractor, Dr. Darrell Gibson, whose practice is also located on Queen Anne.

Polvino continues to work on local athletes and members of PNB - including Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker - and the Seattle Opera.

Hand in hand with therapy goes education. "We really want to make our clients self-empowered in how they work with their own bodies," Polvino said. A large part of that strategy is the individualized treatment and exercise programs she develops in consultation with Bream and Fiedler. A program designed for an athlete, for example, will differ from that for an older person - or one who, like many workaday folks, spends eight hours a day parked in front of a personal computer.

"We don't say that we 'fix' people, because people aren't broken," Polvino said. "We help people learn to deal with their own body, and strengthen their sense of body awareness." For example, for plantars fasciitis, a standard part of her treatment is teaching the client how to massage, manipulate and stretch their own muscles and tendons to avoid recurrences.

Andrea J., for one, credits the therapy with restoring not just her physical well-being but her emotional health as well. "I suffered a lot of guilt because I couldn't play with my son," she says. "I understand how women who suffer chronic pain can get depressed.

"Mimi gave me hope. I was always asking questions. I knew it was working, but I always wanted to know why. I never knew the importance of the body's core."

Applied Health & Bodyworks is at 2225 Queen Anne Ave. N. For additional information, visit or phone 378-1712.

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