“When we look at any one thing in the world, we find it is hitched to everything else.”
– John Muir
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
– Henry Miller
I hope that you kind of like science. I hope you get my drift and don’t drift from reading because fascia, though complex, is really fascinating and extremely vital to your physical and mental health!
If you’ve never thought of fascia as an organ, you’re not alone. Fascia was recentlyclassified as an organ system in 2012. There are many definitions of fascia and more than one school of thought on fascia, so I’ll discuss some of the basics. It’s both a type of connectivetissue and an organ system that touches all of the other organs. Historically in the US, fascia has been a target tissue for treatment by osteopathic medicine doctors in the 1890s and bodyworkers as early as the 1940s.
Interestingly, even today, fascia is an emerging scientific field and rarely discussed as the culprit for chronic pain and dysfunction by allopathic healthcare professionals. Most modern Western Medicine practitioners do not assess fascia. In 2017, Anthony and I were invited to present our self-care method to over ninety physicians at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii’sProfessional Development Day. We asked what the audience knew about fascia. They had heard of apparent fascial structures that they learned about in anatomy when they were in medical school. For example, the plantar fascia at the bottom of the foot. They were aware that fascia surrounds muscles (also known as myofascia). Surprisingly the majority of the cliniciansdidn’t know that fascial layers are the continuous network that surrounds our nerves, bones,blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels as well as penetrates, interconnects, and affects the health of all our organs. Fascia connects all of our seventy to eighty trillion cells. The expansive soft tissue scaffolding maintains the body’s three-dimensional structure, regulation, and nourishment. It has an overarching role in homeostasis, the state of internal stability in living organisms. Perhaps because fascia is body-wide and not easily separated from other anatomical structures, its presence is not obvious; thus, its relevance to sickness was previously overlooked for hundreds of years in current Western medical science.
When I’m really congested and my nasal passages have been inflamed all day, I become lethargic. It should be evident that my body is taxed due to lack of oxygen in my tissues. Butbecause oxygen is everywhere around me and I can’t see, taste, smell, or feel oxygen gas, Iforget about the concepts of oxygen fueling my body.
Depending on where the fascia is in the body, it will have different densities andappearances. If you’ve seen raw meat, you’re familiar with deep fascia. It’s that white fibroussinew and slippery mucousy stuff that surrounds and penetrates the meat. If you pull the meat apart, the fascia resembles spider webbing. On a microscopic level, a cross section of the fascia of muscle or meat looks like a body-wide honeycomb of irregularly shaped silky pockets and tubes containing the individual muscle fibers.
If you’re vegetarian, I have a very simplified example of fascia’s continuity throughout itsdifferent layers. I want you to think about the structure of an orange. An orange has multiple
layers and segments: rind, zest, pith, lith, and locule, which surrounds the juicy pulp. You can clearly see that all of these layers are actually one continuous structure.
Fascia is an engineering marvel because it can withstand great tensional forces within the environment, like a skyscraper or suspension bridge. Healthy fascia is durable, elastic, and resilient. Fascia consists of three main components: fibers, cells, and a watery and gelatinous matrix in which the cells are suspended. This extracellular matrix is a cocktail of substances produced and secreted by fibroblasts, the cells of fascia. The extracellular matrix has essential functions which influence cell behavior. It helps regulate intracellular signaling and cell-to-cell cross talk. The matrix also protects cells from strong tensional forces, serves as the gate control for nutrients, and serves as a physical barrier to bacteria. Collagen and elastin, which hold lotsof water are fascia’s main fibrous components. Hyaluronic acid is the slippery part of the matrix that attracts and holds water. Do collagen and hyaluronic acid ring a bell? Google those biologiccomponents and you’ll see millions of beauty and nutrition ads that advertise collagen andhyaluronic acid for skin elasticity and anti-aging. Just as we consider healthy skin being firm, elastic, and moisturized skin, healthy fascial layers are strong, elastic, and hydrated. The elasticity and malleability of fascia enable fascia to withstand strong compression and stretch forces while returning to its original form and retaining its shape. The watery nature or viscosity of fascia allows the tissue to have a lubricant function.
Fascia is referred to as the body’s tensional network and is now considered our most loaded sensory organ system. Other sensory rich organs are the eyes, skin, and the gut. Fascia contains millions of sensory receptors (structures that receive stimuli) including free nerve endings called mechanoreceptors. These receptors respond to mechanical tension like compression and stretch. This sensory and feedback mechanism by which cells convert mechanical stimulus to chemical or electrical messages is called mechanotransduction. It’s so amazing that externalforce can exert its effect down to the cell’s nucleus, where our DNA code is converted into instructions to make proteins and other functional molecules. Tension can actually modify our gene expression.
Fascia is involved in every movement we make and healthy fascia is a balance game; a literal balance game. Stiff, dry, and thickened fascia modulate vibrational messaging, biochemical messaging and cellular communication. It can affect proprioception, which is the sense of knowing where the body is in space, where your body is when you move. Fascial proprioceptors (specialized mechanoreceptors) respond to stretch and advise your brain of your positioning during movement. If fascia is too stiff, your perception can be off, affecting your limb position and joint movement. When stepping on a curb, you want your heel to first land on the curb, but if your tissues are inflexible you might instead stub your toes on the curbside.Your body doesn’t properly respond to your brain’s command. You fail to lift your toes highenough before you strike the curb. The amount of effort you think you need to properly position your body is off, so you miss the mark. You may even lose your balance.
Fascia holds about four gallons of water or interstitial fluid (water that bathes the outside of our cells and vessels) and behaves like a sponge. When we load our muscles, water is squeezed out of the fascia. When we release the load, more water rushes into the surroundings and penetrates fascia. This tissue hydration and flushing of waste product and toxin buildup trapped in our tissues are vital to maintain a non-stagnant, non-fermentative environment. After hand-washing the dishes, would you leave your sponge sopping wet with old dishwater until you do the next load of dishes or do would you wring out the old water in the sponge? To geta better feel of how fascia behaves, here’s an exercise. Wet a new cellulose sponge, wring itout, and let it dry in the sun. Observe and feel the sponge after it has dried. It’s stiff andshriveled. Now take the sponge, put it in bowl of water, watch it soak up the water and expand. Notice that the hydrated sponge goes back to its original shape and dimensions. You want your fascia to be like the damp sponge that retains its shape, dimensions, and receptor functionality. Hydrated tissue maintains the proper contact that it has with surrounding structures.
If you tend toward a sedentary lifestyle, there is less tissue flushing and more cellular waste product buildup in the environment. Poor circulation can cause edema and edema can cause a tensional shift in the fascia, which can then affect the inflammatory response in the environment. Also, with little movement, over time the fascial fibers will stiffen and lose their elasticity. Collagen fibers, which are oriented in particular angles, also become disorganized. An active youth will have myofascia that resembles a fishnet stocking. The individual collagen fibers are crimped and lined up parallel. The myofascia of a sedentary adult will look more like steel wool. The individual collagen fibers lack the crimp or spring-like structure and are not lined up parallel. Imagine gliding your fingers through untangled hair versus a tangled balled- up mess. Lack of movement overtime reduces overall mobility and can lead to injury like a strain, sprain, or tear. On the flip side, too much activity without proper tensional release like routine stretching or frequent bodywork/massage can also lead to stiff fascia, soft tissue adhesions, fascial layer cross-links (think molecular glue which prevents fibers gliding and receptor accessibility) and muscle fiber knots also known as trigger points, all which lack resilience. Think about knots in wood. Knots are formed on tree trunks after branches fall off of a live tree and the tree continues to grow. The knot is similar to scar tissue. If you try to drive a nail into the knot, you’ll see that it’s not an easy task at all. The resistance even bends nails.Driving a nail into a healthy part of the wood is easier.
Stiff or taut musculature around the joints decrease the space within the joint capsule. This contributes to cartilage wear and tear and compression of the joints. Cartilage is made of specialized cells that produce pliable matrix proteins. If joint compression is sustained the shock absorbing connective tissue and joint lubricating synovial fluid around the joint dry out. Over time this chronic compression leads to degeneration. You want the fascia surrounding your joint capsules to retain hydration and viscosity to avoid cartilage on bone or bone on bone friction.
Fascia transmits and absorbs forces like springs and shock absorbers. Healthy fascia evenly distributes forces and loads over the whole muscle. Myofascial restrictions can exert around 2,000 pounds per square inch of tensile pressure on pain sensitive structures. Can you imagine feeling the compression of 2,000 pounds on any square inch of your body? That’s theequivalent of being over 4,613 feet under water. Those values reflect the chronic pain that clients describe as glass shards poking their thighs or even their face. On a pain scale of one to ten, how would you rate that pain level? If the pain is chronic, I describe the pain level as off the chart.
Let’s discuss the compression of an important type of structure in our body. The structure is a neurovascular bundle, a package of nerves, arteries or veins, and lymphatic vessels that travel together throughout the body. Neuro=nerve. Vascular=vessels (artery, vein, and lymphatic). Bundle= together. Imagine electricity wires traveling through a house. The wires have to penetrate walls to get to the various rooms. These neurovascular bundles penetrate various sheets of the superficial and deeper fascia in around your body to get from the trunk to the arms and legs.
In the image above, each schematic represents a neurovascular bundle. Each tube represents a conduit: An artery, which delivers oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body; a vein, which returns de-oxygenated blood to the heart; a lymphatic vessel, which works closely with blood vessels and transports lymph fluid (containing white blood cells, excess or bad proteins, possibly bacteria) away from the tissues toward the heart; and a nerve that carries sensory information. Refer to the schematic of the neurovascular bundle surrounded by hydrated and pliable fascia. Notice the space and compression around the vessels. Refer to the schematic of the neurovascular bundle surrounded by stiff, dry fascia. There is less space around the vessels, and with 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the body, we believe that the dry fascia can compress a lot of the vessels. The compression squeezes the blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich or deoxygenated blood and leads to poor blood circulation. The squeezing of the nerve can cause neuropathy, numbness, tingling, weakness, or idiopathic pain, which is chronic pain of unknown origin. Squeezing the lymphatic vessel inhibits fluid filtration and fluid balance; it can cause edema, swelling, and even blood pressure issues. On the pain scale, how would you rate numbness due to a compressed nerve or blood vessel? For most people, that would be hard to evaluate and describe.
A nagging injury that you can’t seem to shake is likely due to fascia stiffening to protect the injured area. During injury and even just assault (banging your leg against a doorframe),there’s an interplay between the fascia and the immune response. Connective tissue ispractically part of the immune system. Fascia’s response to injury is a communication cascade,like an emergency phone call tree. This cascade causes swelling to splint/immobilize the joint as well as inflammation, which is white blood cells moving to the injury site. The white blood cells secrete chemicals. The swelling, chemicals, and inflammation compress nerves, causing pain. Some of the substances secreted cause fibroblasts normally around the site to transforminto myofibroblast cells. Let’s call these myofibroblast cells repairmen. The repairmen workto repair tissue at and around the injury site. As long as there’s sustained aggravation or strain on the area, the repairmen try to heal by laying down collagen. If you don’t rest the injury or ifyou move the injured area too much too soon, you cause assault to the damage. The repairmen keep working and keep laying down more collagen. This over-healing or dysregulated wound healing leads to scarring or fibrosis. If the balance is restored, the repairmen are instructed to breakdown scarring by breaking down collagen with an enzyme called collagenase.
With internal injuries, early fibrosis is usually not apparent with routine medical imaging tests. Conventional MRI lacks the sensitivity to detect the slow changes in the collagen structure and matrix proteins. You might immobilize the injured area for an extended period of time, which can also lead to stiff, disorganized fascia that can cause more problems down the road. We caution our clients about wearing an orthopedic boot for too long. Nagging injuries typically lead to fibrosis, compensatory movements, and postural deviations. As a personal trainer and movement specialist, I look for postural deviations and imbalance of bony landmarks like clavicles, shoulder blades, and ribs. The deviations lead to muscular imbalances, unstable joints, and inefficiency in movement and in fluid flow. When the fascia is moving smoothly, you are more aware, feel lighter, have better balance, less stagnation, and positive flow.
Have you ever heard of Rolfing Structural Integration? It’s a form of manual therapeuticbodywork that was created by biochemist Dr. Ida Rolf. Ida Rolf was about 80 years ahead of her time because her therapy for poor posture targeted the fascial system. Ida called fascia the organ of posture. She stated that “fascial web connects and communicates throughout the body;thickened areas transmit strain in many directions and make their influence felt at distant points, much like a snag in a sweater. This is a mechanism through which reflex pressure points become manifest.” Ida Rolf’s beliefs explain why local soft tissue strains can alter skeletal alignment and movement. She knew that structural misalignments cause excess soft tissue tension, joint issues, and pain. Rolfing therapy involves multiple sessions of direct pressure and slow strokes to relieve fascial thickening. Rolfing doesn’t get the popularity that it deservesbecause it is quite painful for most people.
The majority of our female clients around age fifty have shoulder joint annoyances that often progress to frozen shoulder. The mid-late forties is a great time to be wary of the intense one hundred pushups, one hundred burpees, or heavy dumbbell overhead press workouts. Even bowling turned out to be a health hazard for one of our clients. Be informed and be loving to your body! You want to condition and hydrate the fascia that surrounds your joints and neurovascular bundles. Incorporating a fascial care routine can help mitigate joint degeneration. Estrogen levels substantially decrease during peri-menopause and disappear aftermenopause. Decreased estrogen leaves us dry. The dryness permeates down to the fascial web’sground matrix. Current fascia research data suggests that hyaluronic acid levels decline with age and that the less estrogen women have, the greater chance the immune response to injury progresses to scar tissue formation or fibrosis. Research also shows that fibrosis starts in the neurovascular bundles, the bundles of our vessels, nerves, and lymphatics. That fibrosis might explain all the unexplained, often ignored or undetected health changes women feel in their
mid-forties and beyond. In a nutshell, suboptimal healing is an effect of peri-menopausal and menopausal estrogen levels. A healthy self-care regimen should include routine fascial care!
Reconnecting with your fascia can affect your motivation, sense of well-being, and embodiment. Since the nervous system and the fascial systems are interwoven, relaxing the fascia can relax the nervous system. Studies show that relaxing the fascia around the abdominal area or pelvis can produce parasympathetic reflexes which are relaxing and help you chill out. A common saying to remember the parasympathetic system is that it helps you “rest and digest; feed and breed”. Fascia contains interoceptors for sensing your internal physical and physiological state. Interoceptors help you determine if you’re thirsty, hungry, hot, aroused, etc. If you unbind and unwind your fascia, you allow the massive amount of interoceptors to be exposed and available to receive and properly process biochemical messages. Y ou will havea better sense of what’s going on in your body. You’ll have a better awareness of when you’rehungry or when you have heartburn. Motion affects emotion: proprioception interplays withinteroception. If you move, you can better control your emotion. Don’t you feel happy when you’re dancing or when you watch a dance performance? As kids, when we jumped up, down, and all around or hung upside-down on monkey bars, we were moving our organs around. Visceral fascia lines our organs. We are better situated when our visceral fascia gets some TLC– more oxygen and nutrient absorption and stimulating areas that become stiff and dry.
You now know fascia as an intricate physical fabric that can transfer information from one place to another. Fascia gets even more exciting because collagen has electrical properties and when collagen and other matrix substances interact with other molecules and cells in its environment, fascia becomes a body-wide electrical circuit. At rest, the average human gives off energy that can light a 100-watt lightbulb. This network of circuity is a dynamic energy system and the target system for many holistic energy medicine healers. In Chinese medicine, healing takes place along the energetic channels that are called meridians. The meridians functionally connect all parts of the body. The meridians are where the invisible Qi or bioelectric energy flows. Sickness and disease can result from blockages or stagnation of the Qi. Tom Meyers, an authority in the fascia world, developed the idea of myofascial meridians, which have much overlap with Chinese acupuncture meridians. In acupuncture, the skin puncturing needle targets the collagen in connective tissue points. Fibroblasts become stimulated and the cascade of healing events commence. Tissue stiffness and fascial restrictions cause congestion and energy blocks. Like stiff fascia, rigid belief systems can make you inflexible and stuck in thought patterns that do not foster positive energy flow and shifts within our physical being. The energy of unresolved emotional issues and trauma often store in the deep fascia. The emotional holding can cause stagnation, acidity, and chronic contracture and inflammation where people tend to carry their stress. Vibrational therapies such as light, sound, and heat therapy coupled with good bodywork can heal tissue distortions and unclog energy blocks.
Does it now make sense why you should care about fascia? Fascia can have incredible energy storage and amazing self-healing properties. If you take care of your fascia, your fascia will take care of you! If you enable your fascia to flow, you will even feel a new degree of embodiment and uncover your natural healing ability. Addressing fascial restrictions hashealed our clients’ common aches and pains associated with aging, sedentary lifestyle,repetitive stress injury, and wear and tear. Their ability to gain freedom from chronic pain andmobility restrictions have lifted their spirits. Because fascia is everywhere, it’s an excellent medium for whole body health care.
Margaret, a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist and Embodiment Coach, was delighted to share her early experience with her Fascianation Method journey. Margaret had been taking care of her fascia with sporadic massage and daily Chi Gong shaking, but she didn’t feel that
those modalities were enough to achieve fascial equilibrium. She kept feeling increasing constriction in her upper torso and arms.
As she rolled, she felt a wonderful sense of warmth in her body that she attributed to improved blood and lymphatic circulation. That great warmth brought much presence and awareness into her body.
Once in a while, she encountered more tender body areas; places of stagnation, or congestion. She knew that she needed to allow the local pinches and congestions to soften because release in one area of the body can feel like a full system release.
A few minutes into the practice, she felt her autonomic nervous system begin to rebalance. She felt her vagus nerve kick in, which provided a wonderful sense of warmth spreading to herchest and belly. In Margaret’s words:
“That’s the body’s way of saying all is well; you can rest, digest, and heal now. The adrenalscan catch a break and a wonderful silence and clarity enter the mind. This can potentially trigger powerful intrinsic rebalancing processes. Few times after the exercise I noticed micro-movements in my body. This was my body allowing me to release past trauma. It is important to stay with the micro-movements and allow them to come to completion on their own. It may be accompanied by emotional sensations and just letting it all wash through you is a tremendous gift from yourself to you. So, I can say that this system of self-care supportstrauma release processes leading to more balanced physical, emotional, and mental state.”
After Margaret’s first Fascianation Method rolling class her joint mobility increased by at least twenty percent. After three weeks of rolling (full body every three days) her posture and flexibility greatly improved, she maintained upper back tensional relief as shown by her shoulder position in resting state. Her shoulders were at least one inch lower than before using The Fascianation Method.
Not all self-myofascial release rollers are the same! If you do not already have The Fascianator roller, you can order one at www.thefascianator.com. Mention this blog and we’ll hook you up!