Fascia – A Universe Within
Fascia has become somewhat of a buzzword within the fields of holistic medicine, bodywork and movement therapies as it is only being discovered as an area of scientific interest and research in recent years. The study of the fascial system is revealing a fascinating dimension of human anatomy which not only enriches our understanding of the treatment of physical pain and injuries but also offers a gateway towards connecting body, mind and emotions, which has long been at the centre of many ancient healing practices.
Fascia, which in Latin means band or bandage, is a form of connective tissue that lubricates, organizes and binds the structures within the body.
Generally speaking, there are 3 types of fascia:
- superficial fascia, a fatty layer directly underneath the skin
- deep fascia, a layer that can surround individual muscles and groups of muscles
- visceral fascia, a layer primarily found in the abdominal cavity
In the context of bodywork we are primarily interested in deep fascia, a layer of dense connective tissue that interpenetrates and surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels of the body. This fascial layer can be visualized as one piece of wrap that literally coats all our inner body parts, providing a tensional network of support and structure for the body. Just like the ligaments, tendons, cartilage, bone and fat in our bodies, fascia consists mainly of collagen and ground substance. It is a fluid system and in its healthy form, fascia is relaxed and supple, allowing muscles to glide back and forwards smoothly.
Deep fascia is essentially avascular but it is richly supplied with nerve endings that report the presence of pain (nociceptors), change in movement (proprioceptors); change in pressure and vibration (mechanoreceptors); change in the chemical milieu (chemoreceptors); and fluctuation in temperature (thermoreceptors). The fascial system can therefore be considered an interconnected secondary nervous system which transmits energy and information from head to toe. With this in mind, we can start to understand why sometimes a pain in one part of our body can spread into other seemingly random unrelated body parts.
Fascial tissue can contract and relax independently of the muscles it surrounds, hence it responds to stress without us knowing it. Physical or emotional trauma, scarring, inflammation, lack of movement or over-use and poor posture can all lead to a thickening of the fascia, making it less pliable and causing restricted movement, unhealthy holding patterns and pain. One way of experiencing this effect is overnight when due to a lack of movement in the body the fascia thickens, hence why we feel less flexible in the morning and often want to stretch our body first thing after waking up. In body parts where the fascia remains thickened and contracted we may over time experience chronic pain and lose our ability to move freely.
Fascia also responds to our emotional states and holds on to emotional memories. Eastern healing practices, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, have long known about this link between the body’s tissues and our emotions and there is now increasing scientific evidence that indeed sadness, anxiety, pain and past trauma can get locked deep in the fascia.
The role of the fascia is now also often explained as providing a system of “tensegrity”. The term tensegrity is a combination of the words “tension” and “integrity”. It helps to describe the function of the connective tissue in stabilising the skeleton. Without the fascia, our bone structure would simply collapse to the ground as skeletal bones actually float freely and separate from each other rather than being neatly stacked on top of each other. When the fascia is healthy, strain is distributed evenly throughout the entire structure, keeping the body up-right, flexible and pain-free.