Fascia is a fibrous connective tissue in our bodies that covers everything! It falls into different categories: the visceral fascia helps to suspend and protect our organs; the superficial fascia that is woven within our skin for protection from skin lacerations; and the deep fascia, the one we are most aware of, as it encapsulates our muscular system.
The Good – What It’s For
Deep fascia covers our muscles and influences our sensory system during exercise. It is rich in nerves and incredibly thin capillaries. It provides a space for nerves to travel to and past muscular structures for sensory feedback to the brain on things like tension. Deep fascia allows for muscles to slide past or alongside each other during voluntary and involuntary muscular contractions.
Our fascial system plays a huge role in our physical wellbeing, injury prevention and all round function, so it is definitely something to look after.
The Bad – Fascial Issues
Fascia, like any other tissue in the body, can take a beating – it has been described as being stronger than steel, pound for pound! If you train regularly or partake in exercise or sport endeavours, your fascial systems will be put under stress, just like your muscles. As we exercise, the stress placed on these connective tissues can distort the fascia’s characteristics. These changes can pull, compress, create friction and cause malalignment within our musculoskeletal system. As the fascial system is so extensive throughout the body, these distortions can refer pain or mechanical issues elsewhere in the body.
For example, fascial adhesions around the knee can cause symptoms in and around the hip. Inflammation and scar tissue all contribute to conditions such as plantar fasciitis, ilio-tibial band (ITB) syndrome, or frozen shoulder.
Tight fascia, with its dense area of nerves can actually restrict muscle action altogether and inhibit its ability to contract. If you have ever suffered from a fascial condition, you‘ll be familiar with how incredibly uncomfortable it can be. The pain can easily bring your training programme to a halt.
The Ugly – Treatment
All round fascia care includes good nutrition for micro-nutrients and anti-inflammatories, lots of water to keep your tissue hydrated and flexible, but also exercise to strengthen your soft tissues against injury, and stretching to keep everything mobile and elastic. However, even when you tick all of those boxes, things can still go wrong, especially if you are increasing your exercise intensity, frequency or volume too fast, or when you simply try something new. If you are experiencing symptoms and the pain occurs, or you notice poor contractile ability or mechanical issues, or maybe all at once, it is time to get it checked out. Due to fascia’s strength, this can be a hard task.
A soft tissue practitioner such as a sports massage therapist, an ART (Active Release Technique) practitioner or a physiotherapist should be able to provide short and long term relief of these symptoms and to promote a full recovery over time. The ugly truth here is, in my experience, in the treatment room – it can be painful. Fascia has a high concentration of nerve endings, so when it becomes inflamed or adhesions build up, it can be very sensitive. Treatment of the fascial issues involves some serious poking and prodding, it can be very uncomfortable indeed, and that’s saying it nicely. During my last treatment I almost kicked the therapist!
Massage: Techniques include long, deep and slow massage moves – the pressure applied by your practitioner helps to straighten out scar tissues, improve blood flow and stretch the overall structure.
Compressions: Applying a long compression (around 2 minutes) on an area will force blood out of the area and make way for new, fresher blood. A good compression can cause a hyper relaxation effect within the muscle and fascia. This is usually done manually by the practitioner, or you can do it yourself by using a tennis or golf ball, or a foam roller.
Tempering: This new technique involves placing a heavy instrument on an isolated area. Big, heavy engineered pieces of stainless steel are pressed down on an area of adhesion and scar tissue, leading to pain reduction as the tissue is straightened out. Due to the heavy pressure required, the use of the instrument is designed to save the therapist’s thumbs.
Active Release Techniques (ART): My personal favourite. A good therapist will not be your friend during this type of treatment, but they can also show you how to do a softer version yourself to keep on top of your rehabilitation at home. It involves shortening your muscle and therefore the surrounding fascia, placing direct pressure on different places around the problem area. This is then followed by stretching of the tissue, allowing for the tissue to pass under the point of pressure, resulting in a great local stretch.
Here’s a simple example for you to try:
Sitting in a chair, lengthen one leg out in front of you, into the air. Place both thumbs (one on top of the other) onto the inside portion of your quadriceps muscle, about 2 inches up from your knee cap.
Now push down into the muscle with your thumbs and pull it up slightly, towards your hips. Now you’re set to try the second phase, bending at the knee. Pull your foot down and back underneath you, keeping the pressure tight.
Imagine a therapist whose job it is to get you into a tip top shape, doing the same to you, it is a different experience altogether! And for those who think therapists enjoy hurting people, we don’t, I promise.
Matthew Barrett is a personal trainer, nutritionist and sports massage therapist at Monmouth Leisure Centre. For more information please contact Matthew directly.
Tel: 07933 383 604
Facebook: FitnessPro Matthew Barrett