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 and lack of stretching.
In addition, any type of intense physical training, such as marathon running, chronic inflammation, and poor posture can also 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. Because of this, it can 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. And, 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 such as the trainers at www.bendablebody.com and John Barnes, PT, LMT, NCTMB, who has trained practitioners in myofascial release for decades, 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 — 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, if you get 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, you are also stretching your fascia. Never force your way through a stretch—otherwise you could be doing more damage to your fascia. Breath and enjoy the process. Just stretch gently for three to five minutes, and relax into the hold and breathe.
Try making this part of your morning ritual.
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 soft 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.
The experts at Bendable Body in New York practice and teach a form of assisted stretching called True Flexibility Training. In my experience, it can truly help your body age in reverse! If you can’t get to New York, or to one of their group trainings in other cities, check out their YouTube channel, or search for experts in your area who have similar training. Some other 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, and other self fascial release techniques, such as the MELT Method, can keep your fascia moving freely. 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. Be sure to warm up the area you are working on, then slowly work deeper into the tissue for more release. (Check out the MELT Method YouTube channel to learn more about this method.)
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.
Every body needs 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.
Remember, you don’t need to be injured to try these techniques. The benefits of facial release are numerous. From less pain to better posture, deeper breathing to increased energy, improved flexibility and coordination to 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?