Updated: Nov 18, 2021
What is Fascia?
Fascia is the connective tissue that sits below the skin, throughout the body. It’s a white, fibrous band of connective tissue accounting for 20% of the entire body weight, similar to cling film. Fascia envelopes our muscles (kind of like a casing of a sausage), tendons, organs and provides a link to our bones. Fascia reacts independently from our muscles.
Fascia is a key to our health like back pain or plantar fasciitis for instance. Our fascia is interconnected throughout the body as a single system with many different lines. We have lines of fascia that stem from head to foot, from the hand out through the other hand, and spiraling throughout the torso.
A study done by Dr. Jan Wilke shows that when we move our foot from flexion to extension the fascia glides up in the hamstring, in the back of the thigh.
Thomas Myers, an expert on fascia and coauthor of “Fascial Release for Structural Balance,” says he gets the best, long-term results in patients presenting with plantar fasciitis when treating the fascia in the lower leg, hamstrings or even the base of the neck.
Another example of tissue connections is fascia that is stretched in the leg increases range of motion into the cervical spine which indicates a fascial connection from the leg up into the neck. So if you have a neck restriction you might look at working on the legs or the torso and relieve that tension through the transmission of muscle force to fascia during exercise.
You might think of fascia as the white fibrous structure in that of a fruit like an orange or grapefruit. Or even the web-like stuff in a steak or on a piece of raw chicken.
How Does Fascia Affect Movement?
About 80% of chronic back pain can be caused by the thoracolumbar (basically the middle and bottom portions of your spine) fascia. This area is being studied a lot more now than before to discover the full secrets of our fascia and the power that this structure holds. It has been found that we have two layers of fascia. These two layers should be able to glide smoothly over each other about 75% of their total length. Dr. Helene Langevin discovered in one study where two people were compared for back pain showing that the person with more back pain, the fascia could only move about 50% whereas a more healthy back is 75% its own length of movement.
Fascia is comprised of fibroblasts with a surrounding structure known as a matrix. Fibroblasts are the cells of the connective tissue. They produce the collagen fibers that the matrix is largely consisted of. Essentially, the fascia builds up a home for collagen. The fibroblasts actively regulate, minute to minute, the stiffness of the connective tissue. Dr. Schleip has found that, for instance, if we stretch or use acupuncture, which both have a relaxing feeling on the tissue, it helps the fibroblasts expand up to 200% which transmits chemical signals for the tissue to relax.
The fibroblasts have a healing effect thanks to the collagen. When we get a cut that’s what heals it, on the contrary, too much collagen can be harmful as well. One test by Dr. Schleip showed that in an arm that is broken and put into a cast for 3 weeks, the connective tissue starts to overgrow causing a loss of flexibility and suppleness. An overly tight fascia can compress the nerves and muscles resulting in pain directly at the site or, as we said earlier, somewhere else. This is why the movement is vital for the health of our fascia's functionality, integrity, and flexibility. The overgrown fascia becomes thicker, matted, and chaotic. Exercise and movement maintain the proliferation of that fascia.
Fascia researcher, Dr. Hélène Langevin, discovered that people with desk jobs who don’t move around most likely suffer from the overgrown fascia (caused by too much collagen) that agglutinates (or becomes rigid or stuck together.) resulting in back pain. Does this mean this is the pain YOU, the reader, have? Not necessarily. It’s important to look at all the options and possible causes. Stretching and movement inhibit the overgrowth of this collagen which decreases inflammation which in turn makes injury dissolve faster.
Dr. Robert Schleip has found “The culprit in question is a signaling molecule known as TGF, the release of which is triggered by stress. “If I’m tensed up for weeks, even in my sleep, it’s mainly the red muscle fibers that are tense. [But] they relax fairly quickly. It’s the white fascia tissue, the sheath around the muscle…that [gets] hard,” Schleip says.”
Another study done by Dr. Carla Stecco discovered that a crucial contributing factor to keeping healthy fascia is that it consists of 70% water. If your fascia is insufficient in moisture it becomes dry, rough, and rigid, preventing that nice gliding motion we talked about. Hyaluronic acid, which is formed from a type of cell called "fasciacytes", produces the lubricant for our connective tissue, it forms molecules of various sizes and branching, creating a sponge-like root system that carries large amounts of water, thus keeps the fascia moving smoothly. On the contrary, the less hyaluronic acid, the less movement we have.
So what’s the ideal dose of movement? Dr. Robert Schleip discovered that an intense movement or workout session should be followed by a two or 3 day recovery period. This is going to bring more youthful and durable collagen into the fascia.
In conclusion, you need to move more, give yourselves optimal time for recovery, use stress-reducing breathing techniques, get massages, and even acupuncture. This is how we can reach our optimal level of a pain-free life.