Understanding fascia: the bands that bind us

Fascia has gone from being a nobody to being the body’s superhero. Fascia is the current biological phenomenon that is receiving long-overdue attention from body workers, athletes, medical professionals, alternative practitioners and now, finally, researchers.

The Fascia Research Society states, “Fascia is the most pervasive, but perhaps least understood network of the human body. No longer considered the ‘scraps’ of cadaver dissections, fascia has now attracted the attention of scientists and clinicians alike.”

Until recently, we understood the body to be composed of, literally, skin and bones, which supported internal systems such as muscles, organs and the fluids that make up over 60% of our body.  Something was missing, however, because what holds it all in place?  The skin?  No.  The skin is a part of the immune system and provides no structural support.  And, what keeps all that water and fluid in us from pooling down at our feet?

Among the many drawings of the human anatomy, 500 years ago, Leonardo DaVinci astutely depicted fascia in one of his pieces.  This remarkable depiction comes ages before its actual discovery by modern medicine.

Thomas W. Meyers, of Anatomy Trains, poses the point, “Individual muscles acting on bones across joints’ simply does not adequately explain human stability and movement.”

The answer lies in fascia.  In fact, fascia could be the answer to a lot of questions about structure, movement, stability, pain and healing.

Fascia is a web of connective tissue formed in bands that wraps around all the internal parts of the body from head to toe and fuses it all together.  It allows the muscles to move freely alongside other structures and reduces friction. It can be found immediately beneath the skin, around muscles, groups of muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels, organs and cells. Fascia is everywhere.  Biologically, it’s what holds us together.  Like a snug pair of pantyhose (as if there is any other kind), fasciae are the bands that bind us.

Muscle tension or fascia tension?

Like bones, fascia bands are composed primarily of collagen which gives them a tough but pliable texture.  The fascial system maintains a balance of tension and elasticity which allows for smooth, unrestricted movement of each muscle group while holding everything in place. If the fascia is restricted then muscle contraction is restricted.

Restriction is where pain and injury can happen, but the restriction could come from either muscle or fascia, and possibly in another part of the body.  This is the part that has clinicians scratching their heads. Tight fascia is every bit as painful and restrictive as a tight muscle. This is the aim of myofascial release: to restore the natural elasticity to tight and hardened fascia.

In an NCBI publication, Dr. Thomas Findley illustrates the pervasiveness and complexity of fascia with this simple clinical demonstration:

Sit in your chair with your knees bent and dorsiflex your ankle (flex up and down). Now take that leg and with the knee straight, put it on the table in front of you and do the same thing. The foot moves less. Now bend your trunk forward. Even less motion. Next, drop your head. Now you can really feel tightness in your calf. This demonstrates just one simple fascial connection, the back-line, but the fascial connections throughout the body are far, far more intricate.

Since there is one singular piece of this stretchy, mesh-like substance interweaving through muscles and organs from head to toe like shrink-wrap, distress in one area can affect movement and create symptoms elsewhere.

This answers the question as to why our shoulder begins to hurt after a sore ankle has been bothering us, or any one of a number of scenarios where stress from one area causes tension in another part of the body. The body might be composed of different parts, but they are all connected through this mysterious organic glove-like web of fascia.

Wellness Advisory Services states, “As soon as there is dysfunction or pain in one area, the body adapts and compensates to keep the body upright and work without causing pain. As it does this the fascia will shorten or tighten in areas because the muscles cannot hold the extra tension alone. Posture changes to accommodate this.”

And, like a glove, fascia has enough substance to hold shape, but not enough to support weight.  This illustrates how movement and structure conditions, such as poor posture, affect fascia, causing pain and unstable movement.

If we stood a thick, leather driving glove and positioned it so that it was standing, at first, it would retain its shape.  Gradually, however, because it does not contain enough substance of its own, it would begin to slouch, bend, sink and eventually fold in on itself.

All the parts function individually, but never alone

Every organ and system in the body has a job that only it can perform; however, none of it happens without the work of the body as a whole functioning unit.  We can’t effectively treat a distressed organ, system or even a muscle without affecting the whole unit.  So, the answer is to treat the unit of the human body as whole.  The nature of fascia confirms this.

A perfect example of this happened recently in a local yoga class.  About ten minutes into the class, one of the students commented to the instructor, “I’m tight.”  The instructor instantly realized she had passed over an essential and routine warm-up exercise that specifically targets loosening the fascia.  It’s called “Wiggle it! Shake it! Wake it up!” Basically, it’s gently running in place with a bit of a shimmy going on.  This full-body vibration relaxes and softens tight fascia so that the muscles beneath are free to get stretched, flexed and toned during exercise.  “Better,” reported the student, after the warm-up exercise.

Now we can see why myofascial release of the psoas can relieve peroneal tendonitis pain (as it did for my daughter who puts a lot of strain on her ankles in volleyball).

Now we can see why someone with hand pain benefits greatly from releasing the traps, lats, armpits, shoulders and forearms.

Above all, understanding fascia helps us understand the extraordinary power of massage.

Because the fascia is three-dimensional – running not just around the muscles but also through it – stretching cannot penetrate your muscle to reach tight fascia the way massage balls or a therapists elbow can.

Fascia isn’t the latest answer to everything, but the questions it seems to be answering, as growing research sheds new light on old theories about structure and movement, are revolutionizing the way we treat the body clinically, athletically, individually and holistically.

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