By Anita Boser. Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2011.
Sharon shuffled into her massage therapist’s office wondering what was wrong with her muscles. After two weeks of working overtime at her job, she had resumed her normal exercise routine. Instead of the relief she expected, she left the gym with more pain and even developed a disturbing complication: tingling in her fingers. Fortunately, her therapist knew the root of the problem was the fact that Sharon’s fascia was distorted.
Few people know about fascia, a three-dimensional web of support that facilitates, or inhibits, movement. Like a movie director who influences every scene, fascia coordinates every move of the body. Fascia is a thin connective tissue that wraps every muscle fiber, every muscle bundle, every individual muscle, and every muscle group. It becomes the tendon that knits into the connective tissue covering the bones. For extra coordination and strength, it forms sheets to transmit force between muscles. Nerves, blood vessels, and organs also have fascial coverings.
Healthy fascia is smooth and slippery, so muscles can slide like silk. When gummy, dense, and contorted, unhealthy fascia binds muscles and limits movement. Collagen fibers give fascia its shape and structure, which organize along lines of tension in the body.
In Sharon’s case, long hours sitting at a computer shortened and thickened the fascia in the front of her chest and neck, causing fascia around the muscles in her back and shoulders to create additional fibers. Her shoulders felt tight, not because they were shortened, but because they were encased in stiff, misdirected fibers.
Common exercises—such as using elliptical and weight machines, and traditional stretching—are two-dimensional. They focus on contracting and lengthening muscles, like clenching your fist and then opening your fingers wide. This is good for muscles, but ignores the complexity of your fascial network.
Sharon’s muscle-focused exercise routine reinforced the misalignment and tightness in her fascia. A more helpful approach would have been to pay attention to her posture and choose non-repetitive movements, such as adding angles to weight exercises, stretching in multiple directions, and using balance equipment.
Exercising in a three-dimensional, non-repetitive way engages more of your fascia, so the different layers can slide more freely. The Octopus Undulation exercise is an example for your hands; try it to feel the effect of non-repetitive movement and to relieve repetitive strain.
Without the coordination of an adept fascial network, movement is like a B-rated movie: stiff and awkward, lacking smooth transitions and subtle inflection. Over time it leads to dysfunction and pain. Bodywork can return fascia to a more fluid and flexible state. Showing Sharon these techniques brought her relief, as did adding variety to her exercise routine. As a result, she has regained the flow in her body.