You’ve probably heard the term fascia, possibly in the context of an injury or inflammation, such as you see with plantar fasciitis – but do you really know what fascia and why it’s important? For your body to function at its peak, all components need to work together. That includes muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. A weakness in any part of the “network” reduces your performance and increases your risk of injury. That’s why healthy fascia matters.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is a type of connective tissue that covers the tissues in your body, including muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, nerves, and even organs. The beauty of fascia is the connective tissue that makes up its structure forms a kind of interconnected network that works together as a unit. Fascia isn’t made up of separate tissues but is more like a giant net. It includes such elements as joint capsules, muscle envelopes, and other components you probably don’t think a lot about, as well as more familiar structures like tendons and ligaments. Fascia is vital for movement and when you have healthy, sufficiently elastic fascia, it improves your performance in sports, weight training, and lowers your risk for injury.
At a basic level, fascia is simply connective tissue – but what exactly is THAT? It’s tissue that supports and helps organs, joints, and other structures maintain their shape. Even your muscles are encased in a protective sheath of fascia made up of connective tissue. All connective tissue has varying degrees of stiffness, ranging from the thin connective tissue that holds up organs in your body to dense structures like tendons and ligaments. Surprisingly, even bone and adipose tissue is composed of connective tissue.
Connective Tissue and Collagen
Now, let’s look a little deeper. So what is connective tissue made of? It’s composed primarily of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body. Because some types of fascia need to be flexible and be able to stretch, connective tissue also contains elastic fibers. These elastic fibers give fascia the ability to elongate, or stretch out, and bounce back. For parts of your body involved in movement, like your muscles and tendons, this elasticity makes your movements more fluid.
Unfortunately, fascia can become damaged or inflamed. Plantar fasciitis is inflamed fascia, specifically the fascia, or ligament, that connects your heel to your toes. The inflamed plantar fascia is a persistent and hard to treat condition for some people. It’s more common in those who over-pronate, turn their foot inward when they walk or run, and people with flat or very high arches or tight Achilles tendons. Plantar fasciitis is an example of how fascia can cause chronic pain.
How Fascia Becomes Damaged
Fascia can become damaged in other ways as well. For example, a sports-related injury or through repetitive motion. This can happen from doing the same weight training exercises without giving your muscles and fascia enough time to recuperate. Such an injury can have far-reaching consequences. Poor posture or sitting hunched over at a desk can injure your fascia too. Remember how fascia is intertwined to form a continuous network We refer to this as a “kinetic chain,” the interdependence of each system of your body on every other. An injury to the fascia in one part of your body can impact your movement patterns globally.
There’s another tricky way fascia can create problems. Suppose you have a tight muscle somewhere in your body. That tight muscle pulls on the fascia attached to it. But because fascia is interconnected, it transmits that force to other parts of your body. So fascia serves as a sort of relay system that’s beneficial if your muscles and fascia are healthy but harmful if you have a tight muscle or other imbalance.
Fascia also responds to repeated stress and overuse by recruiting cells called fibroblasts to lay down new collagen to build new connective tissue. This is your body’s attempt to reinforce the area of stress and make it stronger. Reinforcement is a good thing – up to a point, but if the placement of new connective tissue becomes too great adhesions form. That’s a problem since adhesions can decrease range-of-motion and cause pain when you move.
What Can You Do About Fascial Adhesions?
There’s a technique called myofascial release that physical therapists do to break up adhesions. Popular these days is a technique called self-myofascial release, a do-it-yourself technique that uses foam rollers and your own bodyweight to help relax tight fascia. Foam rollers are readily available and there are lots of videos online that show you how to use one. The question is – do they help?
The few studies that have looked at the benefits of foam rolling suggest that they have modest benefits. Studies show they may increase range-of-motion without compromising muscle strength. One study also showed foam rolling increases hamstring flexibility. What seems less likely is that they break up fascial adhesions. To disrupt adhesions, the fascial layers, of which there’s more than one, need to move against one another. Foam rolling doesn’t apply enough pressure to do that. Still, if they increase range-of-motion and reduce pain, they offer some benefits.
You can find foam rollers with different degrees of firmness, made of foam, PVC pipe or a combination. It’s best to start with the all foam roller rather than a PVC one if you’re just starting out. You can always advance to firmer roller if you want more pressure.
Stretching to lengthen the muscle can also help improve the function of the tight fascia. Stick to dynamic stretching, especially before a workout. Yoga is another form of exercise that stretches out muscles and fascia and can help your body function better throughout the entire kinetic chain.
The Bottom Line
Those pesky areas of soreness that just won’t go away may have more to do with fascia than muscles. Fascia is integrated into every part of your body and injury or damage to one area can throw your entire body off. Make sure you’re stretching regularly to lengthen your muscles and be mindful of how you’re sitting and standing. Keep your training varied and add yoga to your routine to help balance things out.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bc1
Open Orthop J. 2015; 9: 450-455. Published online 2015 Oct 2. doi: 10.2174/1874325001509010450.
Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. (2012) 1-13.
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