Not too many years ago, the term “fascia” was hardly heard. It was viewed as the body’s inert ‘packaging material’ just as bubble wrap or packaging peanuts. It was also regarded as the domain of hands-on bodyworders such as massage therapists and Rolfers. This view has changed radically over the last years, and its wording has begun to infiltrate the fitness industry.
Let’s go back to basics with a definition of what “fascia” actually is. It is not so much packaging material as it provides a stabilizing structure in the body. Better known examples of fascial tissue are tendons and ligaments, the plantar fascia and the notorious IT band. But it goes well beyond that in that it surrounds every bone, every muscle and even every muscle cell. Think of it as the membranes of an orange which give the fruit its shape.
The fascia in the human body creates an internal scaffolding which can reorganize itself constantly to the requirements of movement and rest. It is a fluid filled system based on collagen. Because of its job as a support structure, it provides stabilization particularly for those postures and movements which we execute repeatedly. It accomplishes that but laying down extra tissue much as we would use duct tape to reinforce weak structures.
Unfortunately, the one position that we as humans in our modern world assume the most is sitting, be it at a desk, in the car or even for recreational activities such as reading. When fascia deforms and reinforces itself to accommodate a sitting posture, it becomes denser (de-hydrated) and loses its ability to extend easily to provide support for other positions such as standing and walking. The consequences of this discrepancy are frequently shoulder, neck and low back pain.
Another important aspect of fascia is that it is the host tissue for a variety of sensors which form part of our autonomous nervous system. I am right now only referring to the sensors (mechanoreceptors) which allow us to sense ourselves in space, also called ‘proprioception’. (There are others but this would lead us too far.) When those sensors are in the healthy environment of easily moveable fascia, they can sense their surroundings with accuracy and relay this information rapidly so that subsequent movements can be executed correctly. Watching athletes gives an excellent opportunity to see this perfect response, be it a downhill skier or a basketball player. However, when those sensors happen to be in areas of dehydrated fascia, then the sensory input is skewed, and information travels at a slower speed. A very sad example of such flawed input and slow response is when people, often older, fall. The main reason why those falls can have such catastrophic consequences is that no corrective response occurs to counteract the fall. Simply put, by the time the information about the impending fall has been received by the brain, the person has already fallen without any attempt at bracing the fall.
With all this said, it seems obvious that we should take care of our fascia much as we take care of our skin and teeth.
As an instructor for MELT (Myofascial Energetic Length Technique), TBMM (The BioMechanics Method) and (soon-to-be) RTR (Relief through Rolling), foam rollers and balls are my preferred method of massaging and manipulating fascia with the goal of lengthening and re-hydrating this tissue. The beauty of all these techniques is that they are meant for self-treatment, and a participant in a class will have take-home techniques.