So, we decided in order to fully understand pain patterns, the muscular system, and the body as a whole, we needed to dive deeper into explaining the system that connects everything within us. Fascia. Simply put, it is the connective tissue in the body. But what does that mean for us when we face seemingly systemic issues with pain or stability?
Fascia is a membrane, or casing that encompasses every single part of the body. Every muscle, organ, blood vessel, and nerve fiber in the body is covered in a sheath of this miraculous tissue. For further perspective just envision: within an individual muscle, the whole muscle is covered in fascia- as well as each separate muscle fiber, each nerve controlling the muscle, and each blood vessel and capillary supplying that muscle. On a larger scale picture this: every muscle group or organ is covered in fascia, and this fascia stretches across to connect with every other part of the body. In this way, fascia is the network which connects all the soft tissues in the body in one contiguous piece of connective tissue. It is all connected!
Fascia is a multi-layered stringy tissue, made up of mostly collagen with a liquid called hyaluronan between each layer that assists in its movement. It encompasses every structure of the body and provides strength and flexibility. There are four different layers of fascia in the body: superficial (laying just under the skin), deep (covering
muscles and bones), visceral (covering organs), and parietal (providing support to body cavities such as the pelvis). When healthy, fascia is soft and loose. However, when we become rigid due to lack of movement, dehydration, inflammation, or trauma to the surrounding tissue it can become tight, dry, thick, and sticky. This inhibits movement and restricts the fascia.
So what does this mean for the pain in your body? Since fascia connects everything in our bodies in one cohesive sheet, it means that pain or trauma that happens in one part of the body can manifest in other areas. Above, you'll see some pictures of fascia patterns in the body. Fascia tends to wind through the body, working in diagonals or a helix pattern. For example, if you experience pain in your left hip, the fascia pattern could suggest that the origin of discomfort is really coming from your right shoulder. In this way, it is important to realize that your pain may be originating from elsewhere in the body. Fascia is like a trail of breadcrumbs that can lead us to find the underlying problems in our system if we are willing to tune in and follow the patterns in our bodies. As John Muir said: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." So it is with our expansive network of connective tissue.
Fascia, as we said, can become restricted due to trauma. This trauma can be physical, mental, or emotional. Our connective tissue is responsible for holding onto pain patterns after crises such as car accidents, surgeries, sexual assault, or even childhood illnesses, injuries, or emotional traumas. When we go through an event which causes great emotional distress, we are not always fully capable of processing that at the time that it happens. The excess energy and sheer trauma of these events get stored subconsciously in our bodies- both to "digest" later as well as to protect us from these things happening again in the future. Likewise, if you are in a physically traumatic event, the body makes a record of the position you were in when this happened. Everywhere along that area that was affected will hold a "memory" of this event. And this memory is recorded in none other than the fascia. (On an interesting side note, there are many reports that in fields such as craniosacral release, a client will actually assume the position they were in when they were injured or experienced trauma. His or her body will assume this position, and the therapist can help hold that position, while allowing the client to heal the trauma in that area. The client will eventually release from the position, and the stored memory of trauma is released as well.)
Often in my career as a massage therapist, I have worked and worked on a muscular issue or trigger point only to see few lasting results. How frustrating this is for both me and the client! After years in the trade, learning more about the patterns of connective tissue in the body, I have realized that many issues with mobility, pain, and tension in the muscles are actually the result of restriction and trauma in the fascia. So now when I work on clients, I try to follow these lines of tension in the body and find the source of the issue. I also try to always allow space for clients to experience any emotional and mental unwinding that needs to happen. I have learned that massage is not just a modality that deals with the physical. It is truly a somatic mode of healing- touching the body, mind, and spirit. Fascia plays into all of this. And as a soft tissue, I have found myself dealing more and more with fascia problems and less with simply muscular issues over the years in order to deliver deeper healing results to my clients.
Fascia has an incredible ability to protect us and provide us with structure, and since it connects all facets of the body, it has superficial impacts as well as extremely deep ones. It may be the reason that we're experiencing frozen shoulder, or it may be storing that childhood emotional trauma from 40 years ago that we didn't even know we were still carrying! Whatever it may be for you, it IS okay to let it go.
How can you keep your fascia healthy and flexible?
When we are healthy and whole- in body, mind, and spirit- we are able to flow through our lives joyfully and with ease. Likewise, when fascia is healthy it is flexible, supple, and lubricated. When our fascia is healthy we experience less pain and restriction in our movement. There are a few ways that we can optimize our brilliant system of connective tissue.
Stay Hydrated: hydration is key to all fluidity in the body. When each cell has the fluid that it needs, our body is able to move and function as intended. When our tissues (including fascia) become dehydrated, they become rigid and sticky, and cannot slide over each other easily. This creates pain and stiffness when trying to move.
Move & Stretch: movement is the only way to keep your fascia in proper working order. When you force your fascia to stretch, it maintains its ability to do so. When we become stationary and stagnant, our fascia starts adopting this contracted state, and loses its elasticity. Slow exercise and stretching such as yoga is great for restoring mobility in the fascia!
Improve Your Posture: keeping a good posture will enable your fascia and musculoskeletal system to provide you with good support. When we slump, we are unknowingly giving restricting our fascia in some areas and overstretching it in others. (For example, when you slump your shoulders your chest contracts and becomes tighter while your upper back overstretches. However, people always complain about tension in the upper back- not the pecs. This is the perfect example of a fascia pattern of referred pain. By releasing and stretching the chest, you can eliminate the back pain.)
Get a Massage: Massage can not only release tight muscles, but can also manually stretch and release connective tissue. Modalities such as cupping and gua sha (scraping) also help to release tension, scar tissue, and adhesions throughout the fascia.
Letting Go: dealing with our emotions and trying to work through past traumas is beneficial to our whole wellbeing. Of course it will heal our emotional and mental struggles, but it can also help release a lot of tension in the body.
Self care for the connective tissue can be just as deep or superficial as the fascia itself. Whether you need to foam roll, get massages, or go to therapy to release stored trauma- your physical body will be looser and less painful, and you will be healthier overall- body, mind, and soul! So make the connections within yourself. Dig deep to see where your pain is originating, and work to be more flexible, fluid, and healthy.