By Robyn Edge & Gilbert Magne
Robyn Edge attended the Congress of the World Federation of Training and Therapy in Madrid Spain last fall and came back with some of the latest insights in rehab. One of the systems looked at was fascia and how we tune our therapy to get better results.
The first of a three part series discussing everything and anything fascia! What is it? Why it’s important? What happens when it’s not healthy? What do you feel or experience as symptoms when this is the case? What we can do to help manipulate the fascia to help you move better, feel better, heal quickly and prevent injuries? Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 coming in the next few weeks. Let me be the first to welcome you to the world of fascia!
This article is a bit more dense and scientific than usual. If you would like the condensed version of the information, skip forward to the TAKE HOME MESSAGE part at the end of each section. This will give you a synopsis of the main take away points. If the details are interesting then read on!
The buzz word of 2017: fascia. Older definitions will tell us it's a tissue in the body that wraps and separates the different parts of our body (muscles, skin and organs). To me this sounds like isolated compartments with the fascia being the divider. Which would prevent systems and tissues from working together.
Let’s flip that thinking. Fascia is the connective tissue that gives us structure. It connects through all layers of our body. From the skin to the fatty tissue to every muscle fiber to the depths of our internal organs and into our bones.
It is the stuff that determines where all the other stuff goes and how it functions. Fascia is the connective tissue that was, until recently, ignored. How could we (the scientists and therapists) throw away something so vital to how we move? Because we focused on the obvious. The veins, the vessels, the arteries, the striated muscles, the organ function. These are much easier to label and separate from other parts.
These structures are well seen and understood because their movement is obvious. Yet, we are starting to put the puzzle pieces together as how important fascia is for the entire system. Fascia fibres are everywhere and responsible for movement. This is unlike the traditional thought that our cells hold that responsibility.
As far as we know, fascia’s responsibilities can are as follows:
TAKE HOME MESSAGE:
Fascia is a continuous structure that connects everything in our body. It help us have shape and structure, and it helps to absorb and disperse forces as we move our bodies in all kinds of ways. It also helps tell our brains what is happening to parts of our bodies in an automatic/subconscious way .
Structure for Dynamic Shape
Fascia is the stuff that gives us shape, it holds us together and gives us structure. If we didn’t have this structure in our body, we would be puddles of tissue and bones on the floor!
In order for this to happen, the system has a closed loop of tension. Meaning, the fascia in our body, everywhere, always has a certain level of tension to it. It’s like a thick elastic band that is always tight to some degree.
We know this to be true when we observe what happens when cutting an incision to the skin. Tissues on either side of the cut pull away from one another. To bring the edges together to heal, we need tension to pull them.
This tension has to be present in order for this tissue to function. We may think that being tense, tight or stiff when we move to be undesirable. But it's all about relativity. Some tension is good! Too much tension is restrictive thereby limiting the efficiency of the body as a whole. But we need some tension to actually move.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Our fascia is always under a certain amount of time, like an elastic band always being slightly pulled. This tension helps towards its functions. Without this closed-loop of tension, we would not be able to move how we do.
A dancer, gymnast or pianist can gain advantage from being mobile. Think about how many more keys a pianist can reach with a very mobile hand. Or how well a gymnast can perform maneuvers with a very mobile spine and hips.
Now consider the opposite end of the spectrum with a condition such as scleroderma. This is a condition with overproduction, hardening and/or thickening of connective tissue. This occurs in many places throughout the body. Which could include in isolation or in combination: the skin, the blood vessels, organs and digestive system. This results in restriction and lack of proper function among other things.
Tissues are always under tension to some degree. So, we need to be aware of this when attempting to change the length or mobility of these structures. Like too much tension or pull on an elastic band, the fibres of fascia could get injured. This is the last thing we want to do when attempting to gain length to a structure that is already under tension. That being said, our tissues are incredibly adaptive and can change when stimulated. Our bodies are in a constant state of change, harnessing that change to optimize it is the goal of movement. So we can change it with activities like yoga, tai chi, pilates, functional exercise, mobility exercises. Or we can use treatments like acupuncture, cupping, dry needling, ART (Active Release Technique) and massage. This will be discussed further in part 2 and part 3 of this 3 part series.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
We have many tools available to us when attempting to modulate the fascia, cupping, acupuncture, massage. But bottomline? The best answer is to move! We own very adaptive bodies; change will happen if effort to create change occurs. If you don’t move it, you lose it. It’s just that simple!
Take an elastic band that already is tense and pull on it quickly from one or both ends. What happens? The band will likely fray, split or rupture. This is not what we want! We want to encourage increased pliability and length of the fascia while the tissue under tension remains the same, or decreases. If we snip an elastic band that is under pre-tension, there will be a quick recoiling of the band. This is what happens in our bodies.
Structure and force absorption
How does something give us rigid shape but move and with ease? Dynamic fractalization. OK, what?! Let’s break that down. Our bodies need to be rigid structures otherwise we end of as puddles on the ground. But we need some degree of fluidity and mobility otherwise we would move like the Tin Man. Dynamic fractalization is a system characterized by constant change, activity or progress.
Remember geometric toys kids would play with to understand physics of tensegrity?
Geometric structures separated by strength lines allow movement in all dimensions of space. Triangular structures move in relation to each. With any movement they immediately align themselves with the traction. There former position disappears and a new shape appears. Then, as if by memory, they return to their normal position. The tissue undergoes translation, traction, stretching. But returns to its normal position. This is elasticity.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
When move or stretch, the fascia adapts to these changes. But it also has the ability to go back to its original shape when stop the movement or stretch. This helps us to maintain our normal shape while we are adapting to new amounts of movement.
Yet, these structures also move in relation to each other. There’s a slipperiness between the layers to allow movement. How can it work with fast, forceful movements AND soft, subtle movements? How does this happen? How can it do both? This is not yet well understood. But dynamic fractalization and differing levels of pressure in the hydraulic systems of the fascia can help explain this.
Picture five pieces of tissue paper stacked on top of each other. These are layers of fascia. Now imagine each layer is glued together. I’m not going to succeed at pulling those layers off of one another no matter how much effort I put into it. What if honey was between the layers? I’ll have more success gliding these layers on tissue paper apart without ripping them. But it’s still going to take me a long time with a lot of effort to do so. Now what if I had a liquid that was more viscous like olive oil? Increase the amount of viscosity of the fluid between the layers, increase the amount of glide and slide each layer has in relation to the next. Fluid dynamics! It’s the stuff between the layers that might be the most important!
Tensegrity. A force transmits to all elements of connected structure. These are long crosspieces linked by prestressed elastic cables already under tension. We get stability when the opposing forces of tension and compression equal out. This allows us to maintain shape, solidity and movement independent from gravity. A structure built by tensegrity gets its stability from spreading out and balancing the stresses on the whole system.
Such structures are thus stable in all directions. All forces impact all components of the fascia. So that the slight increases in tension on any one fibre translate to others, even the furthest away. Every fibre is a player in the game. It all has to move together!
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Our system is stable yet nimble. Rigid yet adaptable. Because of this adaptable combination, we are able to move and be mobile yet keep our human shape and form. If we didn’t have tensegrity, we might be puddles of humans on the floor!
Fluid transport and Communication
The skin has said to be the largest organ in the body, but the title should be given to fascia. It it has a lot, a LOT, of connection to the nerves of the body. So it sends a lot of information from the periphery to your brain. What kind of information? Some of this information includes: touch tension, compression and temperature. The brain uses this information to track the status of the different areas of our bodies.
Our body strives for equilibrium. This gathered information helps our brains to perceive problems and make corrections to our system. Usually we feel like this information is all coming from muscles, but we are also receiving a lot of info from the fascia.
Among its many roles in the body, hyaluronic acid (HA) is the fluid found between the layers of fascia. It’s main role in this case is to provide lubrication allowing each layer to glide and move on top of the next. If we have a normal amount of fluid in our bodies, we’ll have a normal amount of HA. Which means we’ll have an increased likelihood of gaining movement.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Increasing the slipperiness between the layers of tissues in our bodies will allow us the potential for better movement. Running through mud is a lot more effort than running through water.
Fluids can be seen moving along the fibres of the fascia like dew drops running off of blades of grass. Transportation of these fluids move from fibre to fibre as the dynamic fractalization of the fibres occurs.
Why is that important? The higher level of hydration we have in our bodies at all times, the more likely we are to have better movement. Better movement leads to less tension and stiffness. When we move better, we have improved circulation, our systems will flow with ease and our health improves.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Try this yourself! Pay attention to how well you move when you are not well hydrated versus when you are fully hydrated. Do you notice an increase in ease of movement?
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll discuss what happens to the fascial system when it’s in distress. Trigger points. Referral pains. Muscle knots. All those issues that create pain and dysfunction for us.
Falsone, S. (September 2017). How Important is Fascia in Sport? Presentation at VIII Congress of the World Federation of Athletic Therapy & Training. Universidad Camilo Jose՛Cela, Madrid, Spain.
Guimberteau, Dr. Jean-Claude. (August 28th, 2014). Strolling Under the Skin. Video File: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW0lvOVKDxE
Guimberteau, Dr. Jean-Claude (September 2017). Endoscopic exploration of human living matter. What are mobility, suppleness and flexibility and how to improve them? Presented at VIII Congress of the World Federation of Athletic Therapy & Training. Universidad Camilo Jose՛Cela, Madrid, Spain.
Myers, T. W. (2014). Anatomy Trains (3rd Edition). Elsevier Ltd.
University of California Television. (July 27, 2017) The Role of Fascia in Movement and Function - University of California Television. Video File: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raCBeQ-gXfs