For a long time, muscle fascia was considered to be just the white “saran wrap” around your muscles. In fact, when I was in medical school we were instructed to remove the fascia from cadavers so we could study “the important stuff” underneath. This is how most doctors, massage therapists, yoga instructors, and other movement specialists have been taught to view the human body. As it turns out, this is a huge mistake!
Your muscle fascia is important to every move you make. And when your fascia is tight or damaged, you may suffer from any number of symptoms including headaches, muscle pain, neck and back pain, general lack of flexibility, and poor posture. The most common reasons for tight fascia are prolonged sitting or standing, poor posture, and lack of stretching.
In addition, intense physical training such as marathon running, as well as chronic inflammation can cause your fascia to be tight. Of course, trauma can also be a culprit. This can be in the form of physical trauma, such as falls, injuries, and surgery or emotional trauma.
What is Fascia?
If you have ever had Plantar fasciitis, a painful condition that is also called jogger’s heel, then you know something about your fascia. But what you may not know is that every inch of your body is encased in fascia.
Fascia is made up of densely packed collagen fibers that wrap around each of your internal organs and connect them to your muscles and bones. It is responsible for stabilizing your entire body and giving you your human form. It is also a fluid system that every cell in your body relies on for proper functioning. It is the crystalline structure that literally holds all the information of your life!
Your fascia has the ability to contract and relax independently of the muscles it surrounds. SO your fascia can actually respond to stress without you knowing it! Needless to say, when your fascia is tight or inflamed it can cause a great deal of pain. In fact, it can be a primary source of chronic or referral pain for many people. (Referral pain is when you feel pain in one area of your body, but the actual source of that pain is coming from somewhere else.)
5 Ways Your Fascia Affects Your Health
Fascia affects your health in many ways, from how you feel to how you look and more. Here are some of the ways your fascia works to keep you healthy:
- Acts as a secondary nervous system. It’s no coincidence that acupuncture points commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) mostly lie along the fascial pathways and planes in your body. That’s because fascia is your body’s secondary nervous system. Science shows that one of the ways acupuncture works is by changing the signals that go through your fascia. Connective tissue, including fascia, is loaded with receptor membranes that communicate with all of the other receptor membranes in your body. This is why when your feet hurt, your whole body hurts!
- Protects you from injury. Your fascia stretches and moves to support your body, and actually protects you from overstretching. But if you hurt yourself, your fascia adapts to protect your body from further injury. Likewise, if you sit all day slumped over a computer, you put abnormal stress on your fascia, so it molds itself along the lines of your posture with the end result that your shoulders hunch forward and the circulation of blood, lymph, and energy to your chest, lungs, and heart become suboptimal. Over time, this can lead to impairment throughout your entire body. On the other hand, when you change your alignment, get regular massage, or even massage the bottoms of your feet with a tennis ball on a regular basis, you can create health throughout your entire body.
- Determines the aging process. Aging is in part due to dry, tight fascia. This is often at the center of chronic pain, illness, injury, and the limited mobility many people associate with aging. Fascia experts point out that many of our physical limitations and pain are the result of fascial scarring and the accumulation of dense, dry fascia around muscles and joints, and even in your skin! Conversely, healthy fascia is a Fountain of Youth. When fascia is healthy, it’s flexible and returns to its original shape after being twisted and squeezed.
- Clues you into your emotions. Your fascia holds your emotional memories. Sadness, pain, and past trauma (even from past lives) can get locked deep in your fascia. If you have ever found yourself crying on the massage or acupuncture table, it’s because the therapy has assisted you in releasing emotions, including anxiety, fear and anger, that can take up residence in your fascia.
- Tells you how your body is working daily. Better than X-rays, MRIs, and other scans, your fascia lets you know how healthy you are on a daily or even hourly basis. To see this for yourself, sit at a desk for an hour or longer, then stand up. Notice how your hips feel. If they feel tight or you need to rise slowly due to pain in another part of your body, this is your fascia telling you that it needs attention.
6 Ways to Keep Your Fascia Healthy for Life
When it’s healthy, your fascia is smooth and supple. But when you are sedentary, your fascia fibers can become like cement. Also, if you are under chronic stress or have an injury your fascia fibers can thicken in an attempt to protect the underlying muscle or bone. This can even result in adhesions.
Other patterns that can take their toll on your fascia include poor posture, lack of flexibility and repetitive movements. The good news is you can reverse any damage to your fascia with the proper techniques. And caring for your fascia can be easy.
Here are some ways you can improve your fascia and improve your health:
- Stretch your body every day. When you stop moving for long periods of time, such as when you sleep at night, your fascia starts to get sticky. This is why you may feel stiff in the morning. In addition, when you are injured adhesions can form in your fascia. Over time, these adhesions can become permanent and can even inhibit your range of motion. Take a few minutes first thing in the morning to stretch out from head to toe. If you aren’t sure what to do, just watch how your cat or dog moves after a nap. Notice how they tense their muscles at the same time that they stretch. Think of yawning and how good it feels. You are not only tensing your muscles, but you are also stretching your fascia. Just be sure not to force your way through a stretch or you could do more damage to your fascia. Just stretch gently for three to five minutes. Relax into the hold, breath and enjoy the process. Try making this part of your morning ritual.
- Stay hydrated. Healthy fascia has a gel-like consistency. Just like every other tissue in your body, your fascia works better and feels better when it’s properly hydrated. Be sure to drink enough pure water and replace fluids after exercise. However, you need to take it one step further because, unlike blood that is pumped by your heart, there is no other organ pumping fluid to your fascia. That’s where stretching comes in. This gets fluid moving into your fascia. In addition to your morning stretches, try rhythmic contraction and relaxation throughout the day. You can also try getting upside down—headstand or shoulder stand poses can be beneficial.
- Roll it out. Using tissue mobilization tools such as a soft foam roller, or even a small ball, can be beneficial for your fascia. Like stretching, using a foam roller on your fascia is different than on your muscles. Be gentle and slow in your movements, and when you find an area of tension hold sustained pressure for three to five minutes. You may practice self-massage with the same rules (see below.)
- Try assisted fascial release. In my experience, assisted fascial release with an experienced practitioner can truly help your body age in reverse! Some methods of assisted fascial release include myofascial release massage, Kenesis Myofacial Integration, fascial unwinding, Active Release Techniques (ART), the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and even Rolfing. Many osteopaths, chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists are beginning to embrace fascial therapies. Talk to different therapists and ask questions about their techniques to determine what feels right for you. Acupuncture is another good method. Remember, you don’t need to be injured to try these techniques. In fact, many athletes, dancers, and musicians use fascial release to keep themselves in peak condition.
- Perform self-fascial release. Yoga, Pilates, stretching, self-massage, the MELT Method and other self-fascial release techniques, can keep your fascia moving freely. Be sure to warm up the area you are working on, then slowly work deeper into the tissue for more release. If you use a foam roller, remember a softer pressure is better and you should not feel pain. If you push into the pain zone, your muscles will tighten up. This causes your fascia to grip down and crystallize. Also, tightness in one area of your body can affect your entire body. Your iliotibial (IT) bands are a good example. If you have a tight IT band, most likely the mid-thoracic area of your back is tight. When you work on releasing this area of your back, your IT band will also release. These external techniques for addressing fascia tension can help support your stretching or assisted stretching program.
- Listen to your body. Bodies need time off to rest. This is a basic self-care premise. Trying to “push through” an injury sets you up for a potential chronic problem. So take some extra time to relax when you need to. This allows your body to regenerate and ensures that a temporary imbalance does not become permanent. One easy way to relax your body and mind is by taking a warm Epsom salt bath for 20 minutes before bed each night. When you get out of the tub, move your body lightly for about 10 minutes. This will keep blood from stagnating in your muscles.
Get Rid of Dowager’s Hump
I like to watch people walk. And what I notice is how so many people walk with their head tilted forward. This tendency increases with age and with certain habits and can be a root cause of the dreaded Dowager’s Hump, also known as kyphosis, because carrying the weight of the head forward places pressure on the spine. (Of course, bone loss and fractures due to osteoporosis also contribute to Dowager’s Hump.) I believe my mother’s Dowager’s Hump was due to so many years of hiking with her head down. But when I started to get one, I was mortified!
The good news is I have completely reversed any signs of a Dowager’s Hump by breaking up the dense fascia at the back of my neck. I did this by practicing the Thymus Roll Down. This is an exercise where you lay on your back and lift your legs and buttocks off the floor. Then pressing your arms into the floor, you roll down your spine from your neck to your tailbone vertebrae by vertebrae until your buttocks are back on the floor. You can search online for videos on how to do this.
This exercise also helps to increase the flexibility of your spine and strengthen your abdominal muscles. Plus, when you stimulate your thymus gland you get the added benefit of helping it produce more T cells, which can help strengthen your immune system.
Remember, you don’t need to be injured, experiencing pain, or getting a Dowager’s Hump to try any of these exercises or techniques. The benefits of facial release are numerous including better posture, deeper breathing, increased energy, improved flexibility and coordination, and even better-fitting clothes! In fact, many athletes, dancers, and musicians use fascial release techniques to keep themselves in peak condition for their profession.
Have you tried fascial work? If so, what have you tried? And what improvements have you experienced?