Lesson 4

Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Body Lessons | 0 comments

Lesson 4

The Fascial Body: Wetsuit Analogy

Fascia, also known as connective tissue, is the most pervasive tissue in the human body, running from the tips of the toes and fingers to the top of the head and serving as a 3D matrix that wraps every organ, bone, muscle group, individual muscle, muscle fiber bundle, and individual fiber.  It is the framework or filler that supports muscles in their function and secures the position of all other tissues in the body.  To illustrate its pervasiveness and structural integrity, if all tissues other than the fascia were removed from the body, the body would look exactly the same.

Understanding the “Fascial Body” requires a bit more physiology.  Fascia is not like muscle in that it is not contractile in nature.  It does not have sarcomeres that provide force to create movement.  However it is able to be lengthened and shortened using specific exercises and manual therapies.  The process of affecting the fascial body requires an understanding of the physiological components of the connective tissue itself.  For the sake this discussion we will simplify the work of Thomas Myers (Connective tissue expert and author of Anatomy Trains) in order to provide a clear picture of the mechanics that are at work in fascial tension.  Connective tissue is made of, for the most part three different protein fiber types: collagen, elastin, and reticulin.  Collagen is by far the most common fiber type present in what we (and Myers) are referring to as Fascia.  The most important functional characteristic of Fascia is that it deforms plastically.  Plastic deformation means that under sustained pressure the tissue will deform and not return to its original shape.  Myers’ presents the analogy of a plastic bag where if you provide pressure with your finger slowly and firmly the bag will stretch and up to a certain point not break.  Once you take your finger away the imprint/shape of where you were pressing remains. It is important to note as well that if the speed in which you press on the bag is too great it will tear, this is true of connective tissue as well.

This explains how fascia can be lengthened, how it shortens is somewhat more complex.  The analogy of the plastic bag does not and can not explain fascial constriction.  We know that where the plastic bag is deformed will never go back to “normal.”  This is because the plastic bag is not alive and does not have to capacity to understand that it is deformed nor the ability to repair the deformation.  Fascia on the other hand is alive (some people even refer to it as the living matrix) and does have mechanisms in place to repair deformation.  However fascia is not quite as intelligent as we might like it to be.  Fascia simply responds to the stresses placed on it, no matter what.  If you stress and stretch it, it will lengthen.  If you do not stress it, it will continue laying down more collagen fibers between over and on everything around it without discrimination.  It is much the same with bone development and the famous Wolff’s Law, that “form follows function,” is applicable when it comes to fascia as well.  With this understanding Fascial Tension can be seen as contractures due to a lack of appropriate stress in an area of the body.  For example if you passively held your arm in a fully bent position, let’s say with a strap, after a certain period of time the collagen in the fascia around your elbow joint and in your biceps muscle would fuse together making it impossible for you to open your arm again.

This leads us to the most important functional distinction between fascia and muscles, and that is it’s pervasiveness.  Unlike muscles that typically only cross one or possibly two joints and that attach at one specific origin and one specific insertion point, fascia runs the entire length of the body and crosses any number of joints thereby affecting multiple muscle groups and joints.  As such fascial tension has the potential to cause [serious/significant] biomechanical problems.

Wetsuit Analogy: Understanding Fascial Tension

                  The Wetsuit Analogy helps to illustrate how fascia and fascial tension affect the body.  Because fascia permeates the entire body, a full-body wetsuit can be used to represent the fascia.  What is important to note about this is that the fascia crosses bilaterally (from side to side) as well as from top to bottom.  This is significant because where muscle will have a primary effect that is basically one sided and either inferior or superior in the body (local effects), fascia can have primary effects that are global in terms of the body.

Now imagine putting on a wetsuit that is five sizes too small.  Fascial tension, represented by the wetsuit that is too small, impairs mobility and range of motion across large areas of the body.  Due to the fact that fascia acts globally on the body this means that a global approach must be used to address fascial tension.  Positions that pull the fascia tight bilaterally (i.e., from right side to left side) and/or from top to bottom must be used.  Accordingly, using position-based passive stretches and/or Yoga are effective at relieving fascial tension, however it is important to note that because passive stretching practices do not utilize an eccentric contraction they do not alleviate muscle tension.

Now imagine putting on a wetsuit that is five sizes too small.  Fascial tension, represented by the wetsuit that is too small, impairs mobility and range of motion across large areas of the body.  Due to the fact that fascia acts globally on the body this means that a global approach must be used to address fascial tension.  Positions that pull the fascia tight bilaterally (i.e., from right side to left side) and/or from top to bottom must be used.  Accordingly, using position-based passive stretches and/or Yoga are effective at relieving fascial tension, however it is important to note that because passive stretching practices do not utilize an eccentric contraction they do not alleviate muscle tension.

Using the wetsuit analogy again, someone practicing yoga postures while wearing a wetsuit that is too small can over time stretch the wetsuit enough so that the initial movement restrictions are no longer present.  Remember that because of its physiology, fascia will adapt to the physical conditions placed upon it.  It will stretch by repeatedly performing range-of-motion exercises and/or postures, as depicted above, but it will also shrink (i.e., develop tension) to match chronically restricted postures.

One very common way that fascial tension develops is from passive/sedentary activities such as sitting at the computer all day or watching TV all night.  Recall the animation from earlier with the elbow contracture:

Modern jobs and sedentary lifestyles provide fascia ample opportunity to create bonds and lay down new tissue where it is not supposed to be.  If nothing is done to reestablish proper structure and form then over time our bodies will literally solidify into the postures that we are most regularly assuming.

Where the Shrink Wrapping Effect demonstrated above seems clear and simple enough there is a little more to the story than we can see at first glance.  If you think back to the chain analogy you will recall that muscle tension can also create chronically restricted postures.  Which means that even individuals who are very active can fall prey to fascial tension because as the muscles tighten and restrict the body’s posture the fascia will shrink and tighten to match that restricted posture.  However, this relationship is not one way.  Because muscles are completely wrapped by fascia, there exists inherently a cause and effect relationship between muscle tension and fascial tension.

The next Learning Lesson helps to illustrate this. (The content for these Lessons are already written, but the animations are currently in development…)

Lesson 1.)   Muscles, Movement, and Tension: T-Shirt Analogy

Lesson 2.)   Biomechanical Misalignment: Chain Link Analogy

Lesson 3.)   Removing Muscle Tension: Wrench & Bolt Analogy

Lesson 4.)   The Fascial Body: Wetsuit Analogy

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