What is fascia?

The word fascia has become something of a buzz word in the world of movement, therapy and bodywork in recent times. It’s not long ago that even esteemed medics and anatomists would disregard the importance of fascia in the body, instead focusing on muscles, bones and joints as our primary system of support and movement. However, an increase in research and more sophisticated monitoring technology has confirmed that fascia is far more complex and deserves far more credit that previously thought.

Fascia is the main connective tissue in the body. It covers and inter-penetrates every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel, and organ in the body, creating a three-dimensional web that runs from head to toe, without interruption. 

If you’ve ever cut into a piece of raw meat or an uncooked chicken breast, you may have noticed the shiny, silvery layer of stretchy, fibrous tissue that runs through it. This is fascia.

  • Fascia feeds back information to the nervous system about movement, position, tension, pressure and pain;
  •  Fascia is the largest sensory organ in the body – even larger than the skin;
  • Fascia is the primary environment of every cell in the body – without it our cells would cease to function;
  • The number of sensors in the fascia far exceeds the number in the muscles; 
  •  Muscles cannot work or maintain their shape without their fascial casing.

In its normal healthy state, fascia is relaxed and wavy in configuration, and is able to slide and glide across its surface, stretching and moving without restriction. 

Issues such as trauma, scarring from surgery or birth interventions, postural habits, lack of everyday movement, repetitive activity with limited range of movement, such as cycling, and inflammation can cause fascia to lose its pliability, becoming tight, restricted, and a source of tension to the rest of the body. 

Fascial restrictions can cause symptoms including (but not limited to) restricted motion, misalignment of the organs (including the pelvic organs…hello prolapse!), compression of the nerves (i.e. pain) and a feeling weakness or tightness in the overall structure. 

Activities that actively lengthening the soft tissues, such as yoga and Pilates, are excellent for stretching and training the fascia. In addition, myofascial release is a form of gentle, manual therapy that works directly on fascia to gently remove restrictions, ease chronic pain and restore alignment and mobility to muscles and joints. 

Myofascial release is a very gentle, no-invasive technique that works directly on the fascia to release tension and adhesions. When fascia is functioning well, it slides and glides, facilitates movement and supports the structure, like the guy ropes of a tent.

If one area is pulled too tight, the structure may unable to support itself fully, with some areas weakening and others being rigid and stuck. Over-use, under-use, injury, inflammation and scar tissue can all cause fascia to solidify, thicken and shorten, becoming restricted, less mobile and tight. As the body compensates, tissues and muscles adapt by over-working, weakening or tensing. One example of this is in a condition such as diastasis-recti. If there is significant tension along the outer abs, the inner abs and connective tissue may struggle to return back together. For pelvic floor injuries such as prolapse, releasing tension or adhesions in the fascia of the pelvis – both externally or intra-vaginally, can often help the organs return to their optimal alignment. 

As fascia is continuous, adhesions in one area can transfer to other places along the ‘thread’ and cause a distortion in the shape of the tissue (postural patterns) and restriction around the nerves (pain) in much the same way that a snagged jumper can change shape, or show a pull elsewhere in the fabric. Releasing any part of the chain can have a profound effect on the entire structure, allowing the fascia to unwind, regain its elasticity and release the pressure it may be placing on a nerve, organ or joint.

In order to release and unwind, fascia requires the following conditions:

  • Warmth – ever noticed how bendy you feel after a warming yoga class?
  • A light touch – fascia tenses under force. The more rapid the force, the more it will thicken. 
  • Gentle, sustained pressure – no pummelling, blasting or elbowing: that will simply cause it to tense even more
  • Plenty of fluid – it needs to slide and glide, not drag and scrape

Unlike massage, which works by applying rhythmic and mobile pressure to the muscles to increase blood flow and soften the muscle fibres, myofascial release works by applying light pressure to the skin – fascia’s outermost surface –  and waiting for a sense of the tissues yielding or changing consistency. Once the fascia has ‘let you in’, applying gentle pressure and allowing the hands or fingers to follow the line of fascia will enable it to release, lengthen and regain its elasticity. 

There are many devices and techniques available that claim to release fascia. Using something like a foam roller may provide short-term relief from tightness in the muscles, as it increases blood flow and can mobilise some of the tissues. However, if the casing that runs in and around the muscle (i.e. the fascia) has not released, it’s like trying to squeeze into an item of clothing that’s too tight. Like cornflour solution, fascia yields under gentle and soft pressure, but will solidify to resist force. Pummelling tense shoulders, digging elbows into tight glutes or whizzing up and down on a foam roller to release tight hamstrings are more likely to cause more tension in the fascia, rather than release it.