Have you ever been told by a friend that you HAVE TO to try fascial release? Fascia is a term I am hearing all over the health and fitness world. As a physical therapist, I’ve seen fascia treatments touted as a magic cure for making nearly any diagnosis instantly better. Just take a quick spin on Google, there are fascial treatments making promises from curing cancer to getting rid of cellulite. Of course, most of these claims are too good to be true. But what really is fascia and what are the treatments that really work?

Until I started writing this post, I thought this would be an easy topic to explain. But as it turns out, fascia is often misunderstood and misrepresented. So I will attempt to be as brief and clear as possible without using medical terminology.

What is Fascia

Let’s start with some basic ideas about the body. Your body is built of around a 100 trillion cells. Cells are organized into tissues, tissues into organs, and organs into systems. One of those systems is the fascial system.

Originally, Fascia was thought to be filler tissue between all the important stuff like muscles, bones, organs, and skin. Fascia was believed to be no more important than packing peanuts. But it turns out, Fascia is found to be a very densely woven covering penetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery, vein, internal organs, along with the brain and spinal cord. Fascia is now believed to be a fluid network that is stitched into, covers and supports nearly every part of the body. In fact, it is fascia that allows our body to deform and bounce back to our proper shape.

What does it do?

The Fascia comes in many different shapes and performs a wide variety of tasks. So let’s try and simplify things and unpack the system into 4 types. The 4 types of fascia are Linking, Compressing, Separating, and Bundling (fascicular). These 4 types of fascia have a variety of tasks such as providing force transmission, communication, body position, protection, structural integrity, springlike pretension, bundling of muscles/nerves/organs/bones, shock absorption, stretch, lubrication, and barriers between different types of tissues. Whew!

More simply, Fascia tissue is a system of stability and motion that elastically binds cells in their proper place. Think of toys like Stretch Armstrong, your body can stretch but it returns to its original shape. Essentially, without fascia you would look like a pile of jelly with bones sticking out.

Ok….So what? Why Does it matter?

It matters because our fascia plays a large part in how well we move. The health of fascia determines how well we move whether we are getting up from a chair or skipping rope. This works when the body responds to stress and builds an architecture to distribute loads efficiently. Basically, our cells respond and shape themselves based on what we do. So if you sit for most of your day, your body becomes sitting shaped. You do ballet and you become ballerina shaped etc, etc. Your cells, without you knowing it, are assessing and responding to all the things you do and don’t do. The problem arises when a couch potato-shaped body tries to run a marathon. If the loads are greater than the fascia’s shape and materials, the result is an injury.

When your fascia is damaged, you may suffer from a number of problems like headaches, muscle pain, neck and back pain, a lack of flexibility, and postural changes

So. what can we do to keep our body performing well?

The answer depends on what activities you want to do. But having certain prerequisites of movement are necessary. Essentially, we need to train and keep our joints moving through their full ROM with control and bounce back to our original shape. Quite simply a shoulder has to move with as much controlled motion as a  healthy shoulder should, a neck like a neck should, etc….

Here are 4 things you do for your fascia right now!

1) Load your fascia in many different directions or vectors. Your fascia only becomes strong in directions that you load them. This makes movement and exercise variety very important. Unfortunately, exercise machines do not fit these criteria. Instead, you need to do exercises that vary directions of load like; throwing, ropes, free weights and martial arts. If you have questions about what exercises might be right for you consult your local PT.

2) Hydrate the fascia. Yes, it is important to drink plenty of water but it does not necessarily get more fluid into say a stuck and stiff calf. This is where foam rolling or using a tennis ball to roll out muscle groups will help hydrate the fascia. And you do not have to bash and smash the muscle for this to work. You just have to compress and decompress the tissue like a sponge to draw more fluid in. If this still doesn’t give you relief, we recommend you see your local PT for manual therapy.

3) Lengthen the fascia. Fascia needs a SLOW sustained stretch to become more flexible. This should NOT be done at athletic speeds. The stretch needs to be held for longer periods of time in control. I prefer around 2 minutes followed by activation of the muscle you are stretching. If you’re unsure how to best stretch an area, consult your local PT.

4) Make the fascia more elastic. You get more bounce in your body by training your fascia. Exercises to increase elasticity are ballistic and quick rhythmic movements. Exercises may include running, walking, jumping, throwing, swimming, skipping and dancing. AND you guessed it, if you have questions, ask your local PT.

Try implementing these tips and your body will thank you the next time you have to shovel 8 inches of snow in April.

However, if you have pain, pinching with movement, or throbbing in a muscle or joint, I recommend you see a physical therapist or bodyworker who specialize in fascial treatments.

Treatments include functional range release, fascial distortion, Graston technique, and specific exercise such as functional range conditioning.

Watch for our follow up blogs on Manual treatments for fascial. So stay tuned….