I go on about fascia all the time. It seems I am always talking about it and extolling its virtues and explaining the reasons behind why sitting at the desk makes your upper back feel like rocks and mortar. The reason is because it is so important! To make it easier for you to understand the fascial system, I thought I'd bring together all the stuff that I have on it and also try to explain it in simplistic terms and why it is vital to ensuring reduction of pain in the body.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is the fabric that holds us together. It is a connective tissue of made up of collagen fibres that form a network of 'sheets' and fibrous mesh structures that connect the body and provide the 'shape' of the body. Fascia exists in a mesh like structure and it contains water in tubules that allow for muscles and organs to attach and be stabilised within the body. Without fascia, our muscles would have no form but just be a pile of fibres. Internal organs would not be suspended within the cavity of the body. There are different types of fascia within the body going from the superficial layer that lies just beneath the skin and epidermis, right down to deep fascia (usually denser in nature) that connects to bones and organs. There is a wider definition that includes the 'Extra Cellular Matrix' that includes the cells, including tendons, ligaments and bursae. The intrinsic nature of the fascial 'fabric' goes right down to a microscopic level (endomysium, perimysium, endomysium - for those familiar with anatomy) of individual muscular fibres and filaments, so you can begin to understand the deep level of interaction the body has with fascia.
As you can see in the picture above, fascia helps keep things in place. There is a whole interconnected 'spider web' of fascial connections that link organs, muscles, tendons and bones together. The analogy I love for fascia is that it is a system of 'hammocks' that suspend other structures within the body. In this way, each hammock is interconnected along lines of pull in the body. Much like a spiders web, the intricate tension is connected throughout the whole 'web' so that any shift or change in tension in one strand will ultimately effect the tension and pull in the 'web' itself. In this way it is easy to see how the brow is connected to the toes, the heart to the fingers and the intestines to the head. Organs are encased in their own fascia, which in turn is connected to bones and muscles and the fascia that exists in tendons and ligaments. The capacity to influence other parts of the body here is great when you consider how interlinked this structure is.
Thus Fascia is primarily concerned with 'movement'. The lines of pull and force that are distributed along fascia is what makes the body so complex and amazing. Like sails in the wind that are pulled tight to harness the energy of the wind, so too does fascia pull and harness tension to bring about movement and harness potential force. We can twist turn and contort in all different directions due to the lines of contraction that fascia makes possible.
Movement is absorbed by fascia. Stress on individual cells in a muscle for example will respond to repetitions and load, but ultimately movement of the body is the responsibility of fascia. The recoil and 'spring' associated with jumping for example, doesn't come from muscle but from fascia. The propelling force comes from muscle but the capacity to transmit that force into action with lines of contraction and stretch/recoil comes down to the tension existing in fascia.
This also becomes important when you are looking at 'absorbing' movement or the impact from movement. Landing from a jump is every bit as important as taking off from a jump and this is where fascia really comes into play, absorbing this compressive impact and distributing it around the body in a cushioning effect. This can be a great key to staying active as repeated compressive force from an action can result in a thickening of the fascia as it absorbs shock after shock. Look at one of the most common fascial bands - the ITB in a runner. Repeated impact on the foot strike can load this fascial band exceedingly and result in a restriction of fibres which then directly effects the knee and hips. A perfect example of how a thickening or dehydrating of the fascia leads to impact on the ability of the body to perform a movement. When fascia is unable to 'glide' or 'slide' over bone and muscle, restriction creates more friction. Friction results in more effort to effect movement and thus ease of movement is impeded. Simples.
Fascia exists alongside muscles and nerves in the spectrum of human movement. If we don't have fascia, the body becomes a ghost with the ability to move individual joints and bones, but not co-ordinate the whole to enable twisting, absorption and the all important stability. Its a bit of a physics idea but the bones of the body are often likened to a building, with struts (bones) running in concentric lines of compression. When you introduce fascia to the equation the 'compression' model loses relevance as the body is more like a balance of 'tension forces'. Like a dome tent, the fascia supports the tension that is created by the poles as they insert into the support holes and through the loops that exist in the material. This model is further enhanced when you add 'more poles' such as in the picture below. This is what gives the structure more support so that it doesn't collapse under compression, instead it absorbs the force and displaces it. Exactly as fascia behaves in the body. You can also see from this example, the potential to generate force in movement from this tension model. The relative spring that can come from absorbing shock is greatly enhanced when the fascia is free from restriction, to move and operate as it should.
When we talk about tensile strength, we are talking about the amount of force that a fibre can withstand before failing (breaking). In this regards, fascia has an exponential amount of tensile strength when compared to muscle strength. Superficial fascia can have twice the tensile stretch of muscle whereas deep fascia (fascia that is denser in structure and lies around the bones/organs) can be up to eight times stronger than muscle. Thus the systematic loading of the fascial system when you apply weight and resistance is by far more important than muscle cell integrity. If you are moving weight in an arc of movement, say in a hammer throw, the fascial system is far more active in keeping the suspended weight in the air than is the muscular system. The load on the body when you are spinning with a 16pound steel ball in an arc of movement centring around your trunk is the best display of the fascial load of contraction.
The ability to 'stabilise' the body in this movement is where fascia really comes into it's own, operating on a continuous line of contraction to then unleash the power of the built up energy in the 'throw'. When you think of this in isometric contraction, such as a deadlift, you can see the application of the fascial system to operate on force in lifting significant weight. Whilst the posterior chain acts on moving the joints involved with the movement, the fascial system is involved in stabilising those joints as well as the joints not moving, primarily the shoulders and neck as they pull against the excessive load of the weight suspended from the arms. This torsional strength is what makes fascia so important and vital to performing movement and providing platforms for power.
There is research into the nature of fascia to effect movement but this is determined by speed. To be able to harness the elasticity of fascia to generate movement, the movement must be 'cyclic' and quickly repeated (running, skipping). This rebounding and pliable power is inherent in fascia's ability to harness compressive energy and 'spring' from form to form. In this way the muscular system is still part of the major initiator of movement, but without the fascial system, it is but a store of potential power that remains under-utilised without the harnessing power of other systems.
As you can see, its so vital to understand the role of fascia and as a bodyworker it is paramount to understand the nature and the ways the the fascial lines determine and effect movement. When assessing and dealing with injury, understanding the contributing factors to stresses and movement inhibitors is vital to treating the cause of pain. As so often I find, it is about not only dealing with active moving muscles, but even more-so about the stabilising muscles and the muscles that are involved with movement, not just as a propelling force, but as the muscles that provide the platform for movement. Treating these issues can also help to prevent future recurrences of excessive strain by addressing more efficient biomechanics or the way movement is achieved.