Recently, I’ve been getting more into reading about the interconnectedness of the human body. It’s fascinating to me that weakness in one area can so juristically impact function of another area. With my interest in sports medicine, I’m doing my best to get an early grasp on how “it (the body) all fits together.” Luckily, I recently picked up a new book that goes into detail into a fascinating, yet underappreciated structure of the human body that’s answered many of my questions, the fascial system.
What is Fascia and How Does it Work?
First off, this topic is very new to me, but I think it’s important. I’ll do my best to simplify what I’ve learned, but please correct me if anything I say seems incorrect or misunderstood. While the formal definition of fascia is still under debate within the scientific community, I think the best way for me to define it is as a interconnected, continuous connective tissue (mostly collagen but some elastin and reticulin) that lines each of the major organs of the body (muscle, bone, internal organs, vasculature). A good example of how the fascial system works is what occurs when one ignores a small, seemingly minor injury, let’s say in the shoulder. All of a sudden, months or years down the road, they find that they wake up with neck pain, then pain in the forearm. How could this be?
How Injured Fascia Can Cause Pain
There is much more to this than I will attempt to explain. However, I think it’s worth emphasizing to you that fascia health is important in both the prevention and treatment of injuries. In the above example, an injury to the fascia in the shoulder most likely led to some local overcompensation to avoid the pain. Over time, through a variety of different mechanisms (poor posture, overuse injuries, etc..), this pain-avoidance strategy in the shoulder can lead stiffening of the fascia due to increased collagen production. While you may just shake this off as “a tight shoulder,” eventually this will lead to pain developing in nearby fascial regions (in this example- the neck) due to the interconnectedness of the fascial networks of the body.
This now leads to a larger issue- where is the source of the pain? That’s where a deeper understanding of fascia comes in handy and this is probably what interests me the most. I’ll plan to do a future post on this, but for now, here are a few other ways fascia can cause pain.
Other examples of triggers for fascial-related pain:
Overuse injuries- Moving in the same plane of motion over and over again (sitting at a desk) can lead to tightened and strained fascia.
Trauma- direct blows to certain areas of the body will upregulate collagen production. This can lead to the fascia becoming fibrotic in nature, posing risk for disfunction along the entire fascial chain.
How to Protect Your Fascia
Based on my general understanding, my biggest takeaway from learning about the fascia is that lack of movement in one area of the fascia leads to that area becoming “sticky” due to the lack of lubrication and hydration. This is a real issue, because as I mentioned above, fibrotic fascia can disrupt entire lines of fascial continuities. This is why those with very tight fascia under the foot (plantar fasciitis) often also suffer from knee pain and even hip pain as the dysfunction travels up that fascial line. So, here are some of the methods I suggest for protecting your fascia and avoiding injury:
1) Move in different movement planes- avoid staying in the same position for more than an hour at a time. If you sit most of the day, try to take breaks and move in ways that oppose sitting. Examples would be standing, taking a brisk walk and doing some back bending exercises.
2) Use self-fascial release therapies- You don’t need a massage to move protect your fascia (nothing against massage!). Methods such as foam rolling, tennis ball work, and self-massage are great tools to for recovery, maintenance, and injury avoidance.
3) Allow your body to rest- One really interesting thing I read is that exercise dehydrates your fascia. Dehydrated fascia is not healthy fascia. The fascia becomes brittle and less elastic, which can severely impair both function and performance. However, with adequate rest, the fascia re-hydrates and grows stronger. Further, the fascial system actually follow Wolf’s Law, which describes the idea that progressive overload with adequate rest will lead to a stronger system over time.
4) Stretch often- This goes with the points above, but stretching fascia is vital to maintaining hydration and health. However, note that static stretching is best done after any type of weight training.
I think this stuff is pretty cool and look forward to learning more. If you have any suggested resources, feel free to send them my way!