Fascia is this incredible casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fibre and muscle in place. It holds us together into this 100% interconnected network of sensory communication. In Latin, “fascia” translates to “band” , suggesting fascia quite literally bands us together.
Instead of focusing on the separateness of our parts, fascia gives us the opportunity to appreciate the reality of our connectedness instead.
Fascia is now thought to be our richest sense organ. It is believed to have the ability to contract independently of the muscles it surrounds and it is now thought to respond to stress without our conscious command. This means that fascia is impacting your movements, for better or worse.
What does fascia look like?
I often liken fascia to the visual idea of an orange. When you are peeling an orange and taking the layers of the skin off the orange, you open it up to the segments, and all the way around all of the segments, there are these pieces of white connective tissue. Then when you want to break your orange into smaller segments, you’ve also got the tissue wrapped around each segment. And then within the segment that you’re about to eat, there are lots of tiny little compartments as well, each of which has a form of “fascia” wrapped around it.
So fascia is everywhere in the body.
It is this connected layer of tissue that holds everything together. It is wrapped around every muscle, and within each muscle it is wrapped around each muscle fiber. It is wrapped around our bones, ligaments, tendons. It is around our organs, our neves, blood vessels. Everything inside of us. By its design it is holding us together and makign sure that everything stays where it is designed to. Fascia is by its very design able to move with us as we move, in whatever directions and ways that we choose to move.
What does that have to do with you?
If we are living a healthy, stress free life, hydrating well, sleeping well, moving well then our fascia remains healthy.
In its healthy state it is smooth and supple and slides easily, allowing you to move and stretch to your full length in any direction, always returning back to its normal state. Circulation is fantastic through the body, the blood is pumping to everywhere it is supposed to be able to, the fascia is hydrated, we have great range of motion. And physically, we feel good, pretty balanced on the front of the body, the back of the body, the inside and outside of the body.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that your fascia maintains its “perfect “ flexibility, shape or texture all of the time, because of different life situations or experiences.
What causes fascia to tighten?
- Lack of movement
- Chronic stress
- Poor posture
- Repetitive movements
Reduced or complete lack of movement will cement the flexible tissues into place. Chronic stress causes the fibers to thicken as they attempt to protect the muscle they surround. Poor posture and lack of flexibility and repetitive movements pull the fascia into ingrained patterns.
And, remember, it’s everywhere.
So when the fibers in one area of the body start to form adhesions, then that tightened less flexible area starts to tug gently, to begin with, on the areas nearby and eventually a little further away. This creates a feeling of discomfort or pain in other areas of the body as well as, or in some cases instead of, the original area which had tightened.
If we take the example of poor posture gathering over repeated episodes of sitting still for long periods of time. The tissues on the front of the body start to get tigher, less pliable, less flexible and more adhesions form. In fact every day that we are not moving the adhesions thicken and then take longer to release when we try. The tissues on the back of the body start to lengthen and weaken and feel like they are under pressure, sometimes even pain arrives for example in the lower back as other muscles have to carry the job of the weaker muscles. We lose the full range of motion in our muscles and joints. Eventually this new position of posture gets programmed into our body and brain as the normal. Inflammation of fascia and muscles and strains become the new normal also.
Our organs in the digestive area, our heart, our lungs no longer have the desired space to function as optimally as when our posture was upright. This then affects our ability to breathe fully, for circulation to work at its best and leaves room for digestive issues and more.
So you start to see why it is so important that we start to pay attention to our fascia as well as our muscles!
The good news is that we can find our way back to healthy fascia by some simple attention and care.
Having Good Body Maps
Fascia is full of sensory nerve endings that are in constant communication with the brain about the bodys position in space. It also influences how signals of sensation such as pain travel from your body to your brain. Research has found a link between improved levels of proprioception and decreased levels of pain.
The more your brain can sense your body accurately the less pain you experience. The more developed your proprioception is, the more skillful your daily movements will naturally become, reducing your chances of injury in the first place. This becomes increasingly important the older we get!
Most interestingly, research shows that myofascial release directly influences your nervous system, which largely governs the tone of our muscles. Your fascial network is rich in sensory nerve endings, and gentle pressure on your fascia may help communicate to your nervous system that there is no longer any need for increased tension in that area.
Here are a handful of ways in which we can help our fascia to move intelligently:
1) Change things up – don’t do the same thing daily, add variety to your movements
Move your body in as many different ways as you can! Think of all of the things that you like to do that allow you to move and make time ech week to do them. It can be as simple as going for a run one day, a walk the next day, swimming, dancing, gardening, house cleaning, skate boarding, yin yoga, power yoga, trampolining! You get the idea! Our body, and our brain, thrive and grow on new ways of moving and doing things. We create more power and neural pathways when we move more creatively!
2) Move more – vital to move the body daily and throughout the day
This is so important on so many levels for so many of our support systems within. We keep our nervous system healthy, immune system functioning, circulatory and respiratory systems and muscle health at optimal levels by moving for at least 30 minutes each day. We know now that we also have to take care to move our bodies to create hydration for our fascia because it is woven all around the entire body and has an intimate relationship with our overall physical and mental well being.
3) Avoid repetitive patterns
When we move in predictable ways on a daily basis, our brain continues to provide healthy neural pathways to the muscle groups we use regularly. However we start to lose the functioning ability of those areas of the body that we don’t move regularly. Quite simply if we don’t move it (it being anything in the body!) we lose it. No new neural pathways being created means no messages being sent between the brain, nerves and body part in reference, which means reduced ability to move it like we once were able to.
What your brain focuses on is reinforcing the areas of the body that we do use, and it pays attention to these. So if we spend huge chunks of time sitting down our brain will ultimately receive the signals that we use the front body more and the body needs to be set in this position more than standing/sitting up straight. This results in shorter contracted body parts on the front side of the body and weaker less used, less strong body parts on the back of the body.
It is great if you are a runner or cyclist, but make sure that you welcome more diverse ways of cross training into your training week so that you can move laterally for example just as well as you move forwards. It is all about finding balance!
4) Stress Management
So many of us asssume or accept that stress will be a natural part of our day to day lives. We ignore the symptoms which come from stress without realizing the longer term effects.
We need to make time to restore a sense of balance in our lives, through healthy systems and routines. Dare I say like yoga or meditation? It is natural that we have our ups and downs in life, so where possible we can start to do the ground work to prepare for stressful moments.This allows us to meet stress from a place of balance rather than depletion. Having a positive mental attitude, adopting things such as a daily gratitude practice, having daily rituals to start and end your day with calmness and mindfulness all encourage calmer states of mind. These practices, can then change our body chemistry.
Remember, when our fascia is healthy:
✔we move better
✔body posture is improved
✔blood flow is increased
✔recover faster from exercise
✔improve muscle function