We hear the terms “fascia” and “myofascial release” used a lot in the therapy and massage industry, but what are we talking about? What is fascia and why does it matter to you?
Muscles have a nerve going to them to allow our brain to tell the muscle to contract or relax depending on what we need it to do. Fascia, on the other hand, has been thought of as a passive elastic connective tissue that runs through our entire body, varying in thickness depending on its purpose in that location. The skin has fascia. So do the muscles, and even our stomach and spleen! I often thought of it as an elastic Saran Wrap coating below the skin but above the muscle in order to help us conserve energy when we move. This is why our arms and legs move in opposition when we walk, meaning left arm and right leg move together to wind up the fascia then we spring into the next motion of right arm and left leg moving together, again winding us up until we are ready to spring into the next step and so on and so on.
Because we move in patterns and repeated motions, this fabric can sometimes get a kink or two (or three, if you are really kinky) in it, which then restricts how we move, and can even cause pain. This is where myofascial release comes in. Myofascial release is a technique in which we as therapists help “unkink” the stuck parts of the fascial network, thus restoring motion and reducing pain. Sounds great, but what is really going on?
I recently took a three-day pelvic physical therapy course about this very subject! It turns out that when we look at the development of the embryo from its basic three layers of cells, the fascial system, nervous system, and our vascular system all come from the same layer of the embryo! This means that our fascial system is also neurological in nature – it is not the passive stretchy fibers we once thought they were, but rather can communicate with our brain. When we work with the fascia, we are having a conversation with the brain! To illustrate this point, I will have you play along with me in an experiment. Who out there has tight hamstrings? Do me a favor, and without bending your knees, try to touch your toes three times in a row and note where your hands land. Me, I can reach mid-shin, others of you can probably palm the floor. Next, I want you to note which leg felt tighter and take off the other leg’s shoe. Roll a hard ball or foam roller on the bottom of the shoeless foot for about one minute then put your shoe back on. Try touching your toes again (without bending the knees) and note where your fingers land. Typically, it is three to four inches further! We didn’t treat the hamstrings directly, nor did we treat the tight side … so what the hell happened? We had a conversation with your brain in which we told your brain it was okay to move again.
I have read that the subconscious brain processes over 40,000,000 bits of information per second, which is why our protective reflexes are subconscious. The brain is going to protect us from injury and will use muscles to guard/protect vital areas, such as nerve and blood supply. Bottom line is you don’t have tight hamstrings – it is your brain making them tight to guard against injury and re-injury, especially if there is past trauma. Trauma could be something as simple as straining your back lifting a box four years ago, or as major as having surgery. It makes so much sense when you consider someone coming to me with hip, knee, or ankle pain, or complaints of sciatica, and we find out they had top surgery or bottom surgery. The scars are the kinks in the fascia, and the effects can be in unexpected places.