If you have been exploring health, fitness, and taking care of your body for some time, it is likely you may have come across the term ‘fascia’ or the fascial system’. But what exactly is fascia? In essence, it is a type of connective tissue that runs continuously throughout the body. From fingertip to fingertip and from head to toe, fascia is an all-pervasive connective tissue that envelops itself into every other tissue and structure in the human body.

In other words, we have bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, neurological tissues, visceral organs, etc. Anything that is not this, is fascia. It fills the spaces within, and in-between, all of these structures, tissues, and organs. Additionally, one of the key features of fascia is the thixotropic effect; the ability to behave more relatively liquid or more relatively solid. A good description to further understand this feature and the fascia itself as a connective tissue, has been offered by Deane Juhan author of the bodywork book, “Job’s Body” in which he explains the ‘Gel-Sol Theory’:

“There is no tissue in the body that is ubiquitous as connective tissue, and as it migrates and develops in various locations, its ‘connective’ qualities cannot be overstated. It binds specific cells into tissues, tissues into organs, organs into systems, cements muscles into bones, ties bones into joints wraps every nerve and every vessel, laces all internal structures firmly into place, and envelops the body as a whole. Taken as a whole, then, connective tissue in its various forms can be regarded as fluid crystal, a largely non-living material that can be adjusted over a wide range from sol to gel.”1

Essentially, one could say, then, that if the body is the ‘planet,’ then fascia is the ‘ocean’ of the body. 

Throughout this article, I will also be referencing the textbook, ‘Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.’ This textbook, an earlier edition published in 2012, is a rich collection of research articles from clinicians of manual therapies and various medical scientists working to establish a scientific basis for their clinical experiences. As a relatively newer field of study, the fascial system continues to be researched.  With many rich and mysterious qualities that serve many interesting functions, fascia and its research will likely reveal many more interesting discoveries. Hence, this article will only provide a tiny fraction of the knowledge and understandings of fascia and its various functions.

Decades ago, medical students going to anatomy dissection courses would first need to cut off and clean off all the ‘white packing stuff’ in order to be able to see the intended structures. But fascia is not simply just a ‘packing organ.’ It is a highly adaptable, interconnected tissue that: “…adapts its fiber arrangement and density according to local tensional demands.”2

The fascial system also allows for a diverse range of movement qualities. Its recoil property allow the body to spring in a powerful manner, as seen in jumping and sprinting. However, the fascial system also allows for its complete opposite: smooth, gentle and highly graceful movements, such as those seen in performances from professional dancers & ballerinas. 

“First discovered by studies of the calf tissues of kangaroos, antelopes, and later by horses, modern ultrasound studies have revealed that fascial recoil plays in fact a similarly impressive role in many of our human movements. How far you can throw a stone, how high you can jump, how long you can run, depends not only on the contraction of your muscle fibres; it also depends to a large degree on how well the elastic recoil properties of your fascial network are supporting of these movements.”2

Additionally, the fascial system is an organ of communication. Free nerve endings, which are the terminal branching of the nervous system, are all embedded into fascial tissue, providing an unimaginably large volume of sensory feedback to the brain:

“If one includes these smaller fascial nerve endings in the calculation, then the amount of fascial receptors may possibly be equal or even superior to that of the retina, so far considered the richest sensory human organ.”2

Fascia also has a rich sensory ability for nociception. Nociception is involved in our perception of pain and injury stimuli:  

“…in human subjects in whom DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness] had been induced, the fascia covering the overexercised muscle became more sensitive to painful stimulation than the muscle… these findings suggest that in patients with nonspecific low back pain, fascia tissue may be a more important pain source than the low back muscles or other soft tissues.”2

For those who have received or are currently receiving regular acupuncture treatments, the fascial system is also highly involved:

“The fascia has also been assumed to be involved in acupuncture effects, in that planes of connective tissue have a close relation to acupuncture points and react very sensitively to the rotations of acupuncture needles.”2

So where does massage therapy fit into all this? For those who have received massage therapy, you may have heard of the term ‘myofascial release. Myofascial release is an actual therapeutic modality employed by many manual therapists and clinicians such as Massage Therapists, Physiotherapists, Chiropractors, and Osteopaths. As a more specific and subtle technique, it often requires years of hands-on experience to master. Subtle, but powerful, myofascial release can act at various layers of the body, from the more superficial layers (fascia superficialis) as well as the deeper layers of the fascial system (fascia profounda):

“…the clinical significance of the continuity of the fascia of the scalene muscles of the neck with the pericardium and mediastinum inside the thorax is often surprising in our discussions with orthopedic surgeons, although less so to osteopaths or general surgeons.”2

As a lighter and more subtle technique, fascial release techniques can sometimes feel like the therapist “is not even doing anything”. This is because a skilled, light touch is often the requisite for accessing and creating change to the fascial system (see my earlier blog post: Misconceptions of Deep Tissue Massage). Although subtle in nature, myofascial release can be quite powerful, in that, due to the depth of contact to the deepest levels of the nervous system (free nerve endings), it can create significant changes in both form and function to the local structures (which in turn, can have global impacts!).

So myofascial release as a modality is based upon the identification and subsequent release of various fascial restrictions. A fascial restriction is when there has been a ‘build-up’ of connective tissue and the fascia behaves more relatively solid. Any time we have musculoskeletal tension, pain, or any kind of postural and/or movement restrictions, there are no doubt fascial restrictions that are involved. The task of the massage therapist then, is to identify the built-up fascial restrictions, and, by using the thixotropic effect, release those restrictions by converting the fascia to its more relatively liquid form. The release of those restrictions can then help to optimize posture, movement, and reduce pain. Furthermore, because of its highly interrelated nature with the nervous system, fascially-based massage therapy treatments can be highly relaxing! A nice added ‘perk’ to the treatment.

If you are interested in receiving a myofascial massage therapy treatment, send an email to info@evolvevancouver.ca to book an appointment.

  1. Juhan, D. (2015a). Job’s body. Barrytown/Station Hill Press, Inc.
  2. Chaitow, L., Schleip, R., Huijing, P., Findley, T. W., & Schleip, R. (2012). Fascia: The tensional network of the human body. Churchill Livingstone.

DISCLAIMER: These posts should not be used to self-diagnose or self-treat any health, medical, physical or psychiatric condition. Information shared via posts does not replace professional healthcare advice specific to your condition and needs. If you are unsure whether you would benefit from implementing tools discussed in these posts, please contact your healthcare provider.