A question I hear regularly – even from people who have had appointments with me numerous times! – is ‘how exactly does this thing work?’

It’s a good question but to be honest, despite what we already know, boffins are still working on it.

Fascia is a mysterious and powerful tissue and it is EVERYWHERE in your body. It’s easy to imagine it as flat, stretchy layers under the skin, but it’s actually a 3D matrix that runs in all directions. Imagine an internal cat’s cradle – but one that also encases, envelops and supports every other body structure. Every individual muscle is covered in it, as is every individual fibre within in those muscles. Every nerve, organ and circulatory vessel is covered in it too. It’s in and on your skull and wrapped around every finger. In some places it is thick sheets, in others, fine threads. And because it all functions as one piece (you can literally think of it as a stretchy onesie) dysfunction somewhere can affect mobility somewhere right at the other end of the body.

For example: right now, between your thumb and finger, pinch a piece of something you are wearing (that is relatively tight-fitting) up near your shoulder. Now pull. Can you see how far down your body the fabric gets tugged and wrinkled? That’s exactly how dysfunctional fascia operates. And think of all the nerves, vessels, organs and muscles potentially affected en route?

’Find the symptom, look elsewhere for the cause’ as one of my teachers says. Working on someone’s ankle to help ease back pain, regularly has clients exclaiming: ‘I don’t get how this stuff works…but it works!’

So what does this bizarre continuous, stretchy one-piece-tissue do? Better to say, ‘what doesn’t it do?’ This strong yet flexible substance (it can take up to 2000 pounds of weight per square inch before breaking. Which is about half a rhinoceros FYI), provides the body with structural integrity, support, lymph transportation, stability, shock absorption, internal communication, mobility and protection.

When it is functioning well it allows your organs to glide smoothly over each other, lets one part of your body know what another part is doing to share a load, find balance or distribute stress or impact.

If you cut your finger, the fascia will tighten to stem blood flow. If you trip over, the fascia will tighten round your ankle to try and stabilise you and stop your ankle breaking. If you get hit with a tennis ball, fall off your bike or stub your toe, it will spread the impact to soften the blow and tighten to protect you. If constantly lean over a computer it will firm around your shoulders so that your neck doesn’t collapse under the 9 pound weight of your head!

However, when these issues are resolved; your finger has been stitched, your ankle swelling has gone down, your toe is feeling much better or you get up from your computer – those fascial restrictions that were there to help you, do not always let go. Over time, the tissue literally remodels itself into that helpful new shape. The scar tissue restricts fascial movement and can bind down on nerves. And that’s why, even a month, a year, two years, twelve years after an accident or incident, it might be your shoulder is never quite the same. Or when you stop working at a computer, you still get a headache or back ache. Or why you don’t have quite as much flexibility on one side when you do your yoga pose as you do on the other.

I heard of a client once who had an ingrained back problem that my teacher could not get to the bottom of. Turns out, he always kept his wallet in the same back pocket of his jeans. Every time he sat down, one hip was higher than the other, so to ‘help him out’ the fascia in his pelvis had remodelled him and it had affected his back. Once treated, back pain improved!

Fascia is also deeply connected to the nervous system and fascial work can be helpful when we are in chronic pain, suffering from anxiety or cannot down-regulate the sympathetic, fight/flight/freeze response. It functions inseparably with your emotional and psychological experience of the world. This is because fascia is sensory-nerve rich; home to 250 million sensory nerve endings – which is 120 million more than the eye!

Sensory nerves in the fascia constantly signal back and forth to the brain what is happening in our environment: not just whether you  are too hot or too cold, or where you are and how you move in space but also whether what you are doing feels safe or not.

When we feel unsafe, dis-regulated or unhappy, the fascia – just as it does when we get hit with a tennis ball – tightens and thickens in response to stress. When we feel safe and happy, the fascia positively responds.

Fascial work is gentle and effective because we work with that signalling system. The light pressure of the therapists hands (or so the boffins think) causes the nerve receptors in the client’s brain to literally remodel the tissue to a greater state of ease. There is a hell of a lot of science that you can read very thick books on about what we see under the microscope during a treatment: tissue chemistry and load transfer changes. The fourth state of water. Piezo electricity and protein semi-conductors…(I could go on but you might fall asleep). However, the fundamental thing to know is that we can potentially positively remodel tissue with a very light and deeply relaxing touch.

We want fascia to glide easily. We want it to not tighten so much that it pulls things out of place. We want it to functional optimally so that it’s matrix of communication allows the body to maintain structural integrity, move with ease, stay pain free and return easily to homeostatic balance. Fascia also has a significant role to play in nervous system response. The hands-on of the therapist can help down-regulate the stress response so many of us live in.

I have seen fascial work get results when nothing else has been able to (as my mentor once said to me ‘its not b*ggered until its been MFR-ed and its still b*ggered’). Of course, different people and different conditions respond to different things, but 99% of the time MFR can contribute in some way to better function, mobility, ease, less pain and consistently greater calm.

And who doesn’t want more of that?

By Integrated Myofascial Therapist, Deborah Willimott – www.myofascialreleasenorfolk.com 

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