Updated: Feb 21
Have you ever found yourself feeling stiff when you get up from sitting or when you first wake up? Even after you move around, are there still areas of your body that feel tight and restricted?
You might think that it’s just tight muscles from sitting or lying down for too long. However, there’s another element contributing to the discomfort that your feel. It’s called fascia, and it’s a significant player in affecting posture, movement, and performance.
With a better understanding of this fascinating connective tissue, you’ll see the standard paradigm of our body’s structure. You will also know how to manage your fascia and prevent the pain of becoming stuck or restricted.
Like an enveloping lace or ribbon
Fascia is a system of tissue that connects to, covers, and penetrates every structure in the body: muscles, bones, nerves, arteries/veins, internal organs, spinal cord, and brain.
In medical terms, it is defined as connective tissue or myofascia. The word ‘myo’ derives from the Greek word mŷs, meaning muscle, and the fascia originates from the Latin for bandage or ribbon. Imagine a web or ribbon wrapping around a muscle and other aspects of the body for internal support.
The image below illustrates the connection of fascia (inner white strings) to surrounding tissue (outside tan pieces).
Without fascia as a meshlike support system, you would be a skin bag of bone, muscle, and fat. Your bones and muscles would not be enough to keep you upright, and you would collapse without the presence of this magnificent stuff. The matrix of fascial tissue holds everything in place, but not in a rigid sense -- it is malleable and moveable. Many people who work closely with fascia strongly suggest that it facilitates our lifelong battle with gravity.
When you receive bodywork, you might feel a twinge on your big toe when the practitioner is working on your neck. Why? The most accepted theory is that fascia is highly innervated. This means that there are a lot of nerve endings in fascia that send sensory signals to the brain.
Another more recent theory is that given the plentiful presence of water in fascia, it can send hydroelectric responses to the brain. As a result, polarization waves are possible,and protons can ‘jump’ along the collagen fibers [the most abundant fiber in fascia] much faster than electrical signals conducted by nerves [Jaroszyk & Marzec 1993]. Because of its abundant lace-like quality encasing everything from your head to your toes, the twinge that you feel exists because of the all-encompassing fascial mesh and its connection to the nervous system.
What does live fascia look like?
In 2005, a French plastic surgeon, Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, released a compelling video of his research regarding fascia. In his video, Strolling Under The Skin, he provided viewers with the first arthroscopic filming of live fascia. The fascia that is shown when it’s peeled away from a preserved cadaver for medical dissection doesn’t exhibit the same qualities as live fascia. When you pull the skin off from a piece of chicken before cooking it, that middle, slightly sheer layer between the skin and meat is fascia.
Inside of you right now, you have a watery, sculptable fabric that can be manipulated by movement or bodywork. The image below has been magnified x25 to showcase just how watery the live fascia is. Accordingly, hydration is an essential component to maintaining a healthy fascial system.
You might be saying to yourself, “So, if I drink water, I’ll have healthy fascia.”
Connective tissue not only includes the fascial web. Ligaments, tendons, and cartilage are also examples of connective tissue. Three major components make up connective tissue: cells, fibers (collagen and elastin), and most importantly for the discussion of hydration, ground substance.
Ground substance is a colorless and transparent material (see the photo above) that varies in viscosity and fills the spaces between the fibers and cells. The molecules that form ground substances absorb water like a sponge. Ground substance not only plays a crucial role in tissue hydration but also provides nutrition, protection against compressive forces, and draws waste products away from the tissue.
Let’s say you drink the recommended 32oz of water a day, and you spend most of your day sitting, standing, or lying down. To maintain the health of tissue, movement needs to occur to wring out the wet sponge and provide the ground substance of fascia with fresh nutrients.
You might ask, “I took four trips to the bathroom since sitting at my desk most of the day, does that count as movement?”
Sure. But it’s questionable that getting up to use the bathroom provides you with the movement necessary to keep things optimally hydrated. A variety of movement, stretching, and specific bodywork techniques can better utilize the 32oz of water you consumed over the day than quick trips to the bathroom alone.
What if you don’t consume enough water?
Here’s an experiment. You’ll need two medium-sized pieces of cling wrap and water
Lay one piece of cling wrap on a flat surface. Place the second piece of cling wrap off-kilter onto the first piece so the corners aren’t aligned, leaving ‘pull tabs’ at the corners. Firmly press them together. Gently pull the corners of the top and bottom pieces in opposing directions to slide the pieces away from each other. Try not to tear the plastic wrap. Observe what happens.
Separate the two pieces (or use two fresh pieces). Once again, lay one piece on a flat surface. Brush a fair amount of water with your finger onto the first piece. Place the second piece on top slightly off-kilter, press firmly, and repeat the above method to slide the pieces away from each other. Observe what happens.
If this experiment is done correctly, it demonstrates the importance of water’s presence in fascia because ground substance also acts as a lubricant between structures, allowing more glide between them. Imagine that one piece of the cling wrap represents your Achilles tendon, and the second piece represents the muscles and bones underneath it. Because ground substance is 70-90% water, without the presence of enough water, the Achilles will get glued down to the structures underneath and around it, locking it into place. Imagine the affects of walking, running, or squatting if the Achilles cannot glide as intended, therefore limiting the range of motion of the foot, ankle, and upstream anatomy.
The importance of electrolytes
Let’s say you’re drinking water, and you’re developing a stretching and movement routine. Are you getting enough electrolytes, and are they necessary?
Electrolytes are electrically charged ions that are important for maintaining the health of nerve and muscle cells. The primary electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Many people can get the necessary electrolytes with a nutritious diet. Supplements are encouraged if you lose excess body fluid through urination, sweat, vomiting, or diarrhea. If you consume copious amounts of water throughout the day or are active and sweat profusely, a high-quality electrolyte will be beneficial.
Although there isn’t direct scientific literature about why some people get sore after massage or bodywork, there is a supposition that a contributing factor is dehydration. How many times have you heard a massage therapist say after your massage to drink plenty of water? In my practice, although many people report having very little to no soreness after a session, I recommend drinking water and also consuming electrolytes -- especially magnesium to prevent soreness after a deep tissue or fascia treatment.
The aging process and diminishing collagen
As we age, both collagen and elastin diminish, especially after the age of 40. Fascia is made up mostly of collagen and is what provides the body with its supple quality. Collagen is a protein. Consuming enough protein can help retain some fascial structure during aging. However, we can’t completely stop the process. There is some debate over whether taking a collagen supplement is beneficial or an alternative health gimmick. If approved by your health care provider, there is no harm in trying a collagen supplement and observing any results.
Try these four actions
Fascia is a connective tissue web mainly consisting of collagen fibers that support the entire body. Because of its all-encompassing nature, it communicates with the nervous system via nerve endings or possibly through hydroelectric polarization. In addition, healthy fascia maintains its supple quality by being hydrated and preventing anatomical structures from sticking to one another.
I invite you to consistently engage in four primary things to gain and maintain fascial integrity:
Consume more water and incorporate a high-quality electrolyte supplement if you frequently urinate or sweat throughout the day.
Incorporate a variety of stretch and movement drills at least once a day. For fascia to change, it requires 1-5 minutes of gentle, sustained stretching. Therefore, 3-5 minutes is ideal. Yin Yoga is an excellent way to achieve success in fascial stretching.
Consume protein and possibly supplement with a high-quality collagen powder
Receive fascia-oriented bodywork once a month or as needed.
This way, your body won’t be a skin bag that brings you pain. Instead, it will be a supple, flexible body that will last you for decades to come.