What is Fascia?
Fascia is a continuous network of connective tissue in the body, composed primarily of cells, collagen, elastin and ground substance – a fluid that fills the space between the fibres and cells. Fascia is everywhere in the body – it surrounds and permeates all other tissues. Superficial fascia lies underneath our skin, binding it to the underlying tissues; visceral fascia is that which surrounds our organs. For the purposes of this article, we are looking at the ‘deep’ fascia – the connective tissue that permeates and encases our muscles (myofascia). Deep fascia also connects and surrounds nerves, bones and blood vessels.
Deep fascia is very dense, flexible yet incredibly strong. It surrounds individual muscles (akin to the pith of an orange), keeping them separate from other muscles and tissues in the body, yet it also goes deeper to encase groups of muscle fibres into compartments (like the segments of an orange) and even surrounds individual muscle fibres (think of the tiny pieces of orange that are revealed if you were to take the ‘skin’ off an individual segment).
Interesting facts about fascia
Our skin is our primary sensory organ and fascia is the secondary. There are more neurons being transmitted via our fascia at any time than our actual nerves themselves. Incredible! This communication highway gives us our sense of interoception – which is our awareness of our internal body state. It is through interoception that we can feel, for example, our heart beat, our breath and recognise feelings of hunger or fullness.
Fascia also houses an important part of our immune system: the lymphatic system.
In Chinese Medicine, the meridians (energy channels) are found in the fascia.
The main functions of the deep fascia
- To separate individual tissue cells in the body (without fascia, the body would be a jumbled mass of different cells and we would not be the humans that we are!)
- Provide a gliding surface between layers of muscle and nerves, blood vessels etc.
- Connects different body parts together e.g. muscle into tendon which attaches to bone.
- To enable the transmission of force through the body when we move, via lines of fascia.
- To provide a supportive framework for the body – the bones that make up our skeleton would not stay in place if it were not for the fascia!
- To protect the body as a form of cushioning (fat cells are stored in fascia)
- To repair damage to the tissues of the body (scar tissue is fascia)
- To hydrate and lubricate.
The importance of maintaining healthy fascia
Healthy fascia has a wavy configuration that allows us to move freely in our bodies whilst providing support and structure. Dysfunction can occur in the following ways:
Injury or breakage to the collagen fibres including (but not limited to):
- An acute injury e.g. sporting injury (muscle, tendon, ligaments) or sudden trauma to the body (a fall or accident)
- Repetitive strain over time e.g. lifting weights, regular running, playing sports, carrying children, manual labour.
In these instances, our amazing bodies will do all they can to repair the damage: certain cells in the fascia will produce and lay down new collagen fibres. As clever as this is, the repair job, unfortunately, is not of a high quality; unlike the healthy/orderly wavy configuration, the repair (or scar) tissue will be laid down in a haphazard fashion, causing adhesions – like velcro – between the different tissues of the body. This decreases the ability of the gliding surfaces, limiting range of motion, causing pain and sometimes compression of surrounding blood vessels and nerves.
These matted up areas of fascia can also cause trigger points in the muscles and decrease the ability of our muscles to function optimally – we lose strength as well as mobility. As we know that fascia is interconnected in the body, dysfunction in one small area can affect the structure of the body as a whole. So a little tear in a hamstring muscle, for example, can have a knock on effect from head to toe.
Lack of movement & poor postural habits
- Poor posture
- Underuse: general lack of movement e.g. a sedentary lifestyle or deskbound job.
- The chronic effect of limited range of motion due to an old injury/trauma/accident
I like to visualise the effect of the above in terms of fascia acting like clingfilm. Fascia supports us and provides structure yet if we do not move enough or spend hours slumped at a computer each day, our deep fascia will begin to mould itself around the shape we are holding. So if a person sits for hours a day with a rounded back and hunched shoulders, the fascia will begin to support this uncompromising posture. The lack of elasticity will restrict our range of motion and cause structural imbalances in the body.
Over time this not only causes discomforts, aches and pains, but eventually will lead to uneven wear and tear on our joints and degeneration of the spinal discs.
So how do we maintain the health of our fascia?
First and foremost, if you have an injury, chronic or acute pain, please seek a diagnosis and advice from a healthcare professional. An acute or sporting injury might require a visit to A&E (as my partner did after separating his shoulder during a rugby match); or perhaps we are suffering from chronic back pain and decide to ditch the painkillers in favour of a trip to an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist. Or maybe our aching shoulders from hours of hunched over a computer will feel heaps better after a good massage. Always seek a diagnosis before attempting to ‘self treat’.
If we are given the green light to exercise or use self-myofascial release, the best thing we can do for the health of our fascia is:
I am not suggesting that you sign up to a gym membership with the intention of working out five days a week, what I mean is move your body often throughout the day. If you have a deskbound job or sedentary lifestyle, set a reminder to get up every half an hour. Moving from a sitting position to standing involves over 50 stabilising muscles but to simply remain standing, most of our main muscle groups engage. Moving frequently (or just standing up from your chair or sofa) will make a huge difference to your structure and help eliminate the ‘clingfilm’ effect.
Gentle movement, whether that be simply walking or a regular gentle yoga practice, will help to hydrate your fascial system and maintain tone of your muscles.
Apply appropriate stress to your fascia
All tissues of our body require appropriate ‘stress’ in order to maintain their health. The stress applied – which is different depending upon the tissue in question – will stimulate the body to lay down new cells. Our bones stay strong through weight bearing; our muscles respond to movement, weight bearing exercise or ‘yang’ yoga – where we hold poses that demand our muscles to engage for short periods of time.
Our fascia will support our structure and allow for movement in any of the above, but in order to maintain the density, pliability and integrity of our fascia – and this is the important part – we need to look at a different way of applying stress. New collagen and elastin cells are laid down when we apply stress to our myofascia in the following way:
Yin Yoga – in this practice we move into the pose to 50-70% of our maximum capability/stretch. At this place we can allow our muscles to relax so that we can hold the pose for a minimum of 3 minutes. We use the support of props as required in order to allow us to soften and relax into the pose so that our muscles do not steal the stretch. We also stay for time – ideally a minimum of 3 minutes. If we were to hold a stretch/yoga pose at 100% of our capacity/range of motion would be injurious to our tissues.
I always visit my osteopath or massage therapist as and when required. This is valuable and I could not do without their expertise. Sometimes I can’t ‘fix myself’. However, since discovering and utilising self myofascial release on a regular basis, I have found that I can last longer between treatments and give my body a quick tune up when I need it. There are not many days where my myofascial tools do not feature in my time on my yoga mat.
I have written a separate article – A guide to self myofascial release – as a follow up to this post, for a more in-depth look at self myofascial release. I highly recommend firstly learning these techniques under guidance, whether that be through attending a workshop or a booking a private lesson. Once you master the basics and understand the general guidelines, I promise you your tennis balls/rollers/myofascial balls will be a regular feature in your self care regime!
The information contained in this article is not intended to constitute or replace medical advice.