06/22/2021 by Michael Fink, CMT
It''s Not Your Muscles, It's Your Fascia!
We’ve all experienced body pain and stiffness. And we often attribute it to creaky joints or “tight” muscles.
And maybe you do a quick stretch or take a collagen supplement, but you can’t quite seem to get at it.
What if I told you that the main source of that stiffness, achiness, and lack of flexibility could be from a body part you never knew existed?
It is believed that fascia contains approximately six times as many sensory nerves as muscle tissue. No wonder you are in pain!
So what exactly is fascia and how can you reduce discomfort caused by it? Let me tell you.
What is fascia?
Fascia is connective tissue that forms a web around all of your internal “stuff”. It surrounds your bones, vessels, muscles, nerves, and organs. It basically connects all of our internal structures together - kind of like a three-dimensional flexible scaffolding inside our bodies. It helps to transfer energy across structures and helps to transform the work of our muscles into smooth movement.
Fascia should be supple and flexible while still maintaining structure. Think of it like a giant sheet of thin rubbery material - flexible enough to take on the shape of whatever it surrounds, but strong enough to maintain its integrity. It’s the Elastigirl of your insides. Okay, not really, but it’s a fun analogy.
Fascia stretches and moves….until it doesn’t. Sometimes fascia thickens or gets stuck and that translates into stiffness, lack of flexibility, and even pain.
What causes “tight” fascia?
Fascia can stick - both to itself as well as to the material it surrounds. It can stick to surrounding structures or you might feel little knots or bumps. This can be caused by a number of factors.
- Repetitive movement. Do the same thing over and over again such as running or cycling?
- Too little movement. Sit at a desk or in a car all day every day and don’t take your body through full range of motion?
- Trauma. Injury of any kind (including surgery) can also result in fascial adhesions.
Fascia and movement
Fascia helps us to move smoothly and effectively by connecting all of our internal structures together. It allows muscles to move, nerves and vessels to slide between joints, and organs to shift and move as influenced by the body.
Fascia enables the transfer of energy and the distribution of tension so our movements are smooth and coordinated.
Fascia and emotions
Something that may surprise you is how fascia is tied to emotions.
Because of the high number of nerves throughout the fascia, dysfunction in the fascia can result in emotional changesas well as physical discomfort.
Have you ever felt weepy while experiencing widespread achiness? Me too.
Fascial pain can lead to emotional changes which can lead to further postural changes (the way you slump forward when you don’t feel great). So reducing physical pain can help improve emotional aspects of pain as well.
Is it fascia pain?
Typically when there is a dysfunction in a muscle, you will experience pain with a specific movement. If you hurt your bicep, pain occurs when you use that bicep.
But with fascia pain, your discomfort usually isn't triggered by a specific movement. Widespread achiness and stiffness is a common complaint. Some people even complain that their skin hurts or experience more intense pain across one area of their body.
With myofascial pain syndrome, fascial adhesions can worsen over time and develop into trigger points.
Unlike with muscle injury, gentle movement often decreases fascial pain and improves range of motion.
Ways to reduce fascia pain
Applying heat to an area of fascial pain helps to restore elasticity allowing you to stretch and move more effectively. So get in that tub or sauna!
Stretching, especially full-body movement like gentle yoga, manipulates the fascia and helps to reduce pain and stiffness. The key is to move the area in all directions. Be sure to twist and bend and stretch in as many directions as possible and hold those positions for extended periods to allow the fascia to release.
Massage therapy provides targeted treatment in specific areas and allows you to address an issue more comprehensively by generating heat, calming the nervous system, and treating muscle and fascia issues simultaneously.
Massage therapy can also address any trigger points you may have, since trigger points are often hard to self-treat.
We all experience pain and stiffness from time to time. If chronic achiness and stiffness has been troubling you, a consistent program of heat, movement, and bodywork can be enormously effective at reducing discomfort and improving performance.