If you are one of my clients you will almost certainly have heard me mention the word fascia. But what is fascia and how can work on fascia help to relieve chronic pain, tension, stiffness and imbalances in our bodies?
Fascia is one of the most important and interconnected systems within the body. Until quite recently it was very much ignored within mainstream anatomical and medical thinking. Interest and research into fascia have increased a huge amount in the last 5 years, to the extent that many new ideas are changing the way we think about the body. Just asking what fascia is, or typing it into Google will bring up over 52,000, 000 results! And it can provoke much-heated debate. A good nerdy definition can be taken from the International Fascial Research Congress (which is a wonderful organisation set up by pioneers in the field of fascial research):
If you read that and found it difficult to really understand you are not alone! The key phrase is that fascia is “the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system“. It forms ligaments, tendons and wraps around the brain, nerves, bones muscle fibres and bundles of muscle fibres. All of these fasciae were previously labelled as different structures (e.g. epimysium, perimysium, endomysium), yet the mind-boggling truth is that all of these things are really one fascia and are all interconnected through a silk-like spiders web. Imagine for one moment if your entire body was to be dissolved leaving only the fascia behind……you would in fact still have a complete 3D representation of you.
Our new understanding of fascia is challenging many long-held beliefs about how the body works. For example, Tom Myer’s has developed the idea of ‘myofasical trains, chains and slings’ in his work. He suggests that our previously held belief that ‘muscles just operate over a single joint’ are too simplistic – instead because muscles are connected in various ways to fascia that cross several joints and can span from head to toe, we are therefore in effect dealing with a series of much larger ‘cardinal slings’ that cover the entire body. This means that pain or dysfunction experienced in one part of the body, may have its origins in a totally different, apparently unrelated part of the body.
Fascial restrictions do not show up on CAT scans, MRI’s or x-rays, and many people suffer with unresolved physical or emotional pain due to blockages or trauma in their fascia. Fascial tension is common and most of us will have restricted fascial tissue somewhere in our bodies. In order to function properly fascia likes to move, something which is an issue in a society of desk-based jobs, excessive driving and sitting, and it also likes to be hydrated, so that means drinking plenty of water! When fascia is not hydrated it loses its ability to glide freely and becomes stuck.
In fascial work a fluid touch is required, coupled with the ability to remain quietly still while the fascial tissue ‘releases’. Areas of fascial tension may need to be held for 5-8 mins, with a sustained but gentle pressure, so that the fascia has time to elongate naturally and return to its normal resting length. Sometimes the ‘release’ is felt by both the client and the therapist, and has been described as anything from ‘melting, like a wave’ through to ‘a sense of teasing matted, almost felted wool to loosen and create space within (my) tissues’.
There are a number of different forms of fascial release:
- Myofascial Release which focuses on the fascia around and within muscles, and also the superficial fascia just below the skin
- Rolfing or Structural Integration developed by the great Ida Rolf in the late 1960’s when she was seeking to establish proper vertical alignment of the body. SI work seeks to change the alignment of the whole of the body, easing pain and dysfunction caused by fascial restrictions. Practitioners will work with clients over 10 sessions through the whole of the body from feet to head. Other similar approaches include Kinesis myofascial integration as developed by Tom Myers and Hellerwork. although all are based heavily on Rolf’s work and retain many of her original ideas and concepts.
- Craniosacrial Therapy which focuses on gentle movement to the sacral bones in the skull
- Viseral Manipulation which focuses on the fascia around organs such as the lungs
It is worth remembering that it is impossible to touch the body without touching the fascia, and therefore, it makes sense to integrate a variety of fasial techniques into any bodywork session. Doing fascial work requires a sensitive touch, a willingness to follow intuition, a deep sense of connection to the body and the development of a ‘listening touch’. Whether direct techniques or indirect techniques or a combination of the two are used, the results can be very powerful, and chronic pain conditions such as sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, RSI, sporting injuries, rotator cuff issues, fibromyalgia, pelvic and menstrual problems, IBS and headaches can all be treated successfully.
Chaitow, L. (2014) Somatic dysfunction and fascia’s gliding potential. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 18 (1), 1-3
Fairweather, R. and Mari, M. S. (2016) ‘Dedicated followers of facia’, pp 85-113. Handspring Publishing, Edinburgh.
Myers, T. (2001) Anatomy Trains, 1st edn. Churchill Livingstone: Edinburgh