What exactly is fascia?
'Fascia is the body’s network of fibrous connective tissue. You’ve seen it when you skin a chicken breast—the filmy layer between the skin and meat. Fascia used to be removed during dissection to see the “important” stuff: muscles, organs, bones, nerves, arteries, etc. We now know that fascia is the important stuff because it forms a complex network that reaches everywhere in the body. Fascia is all the soft connective tissue including fascial sheets such as the plantar fascia, the tendons, ligaments, bursae, the fascia in and around muscles, and the membranes around the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
What does fascia do?
If everything was removed from your body except fascia, the shape would still be recognizable as you. Fascia is what actually holds us up and together (not muscles and bones), so understanding fascia is essential to understanding movement—our horses and our own. Fascia’s most obvious job is to help body parts move together—wrapping around layers of muscle to slide easily as they contract and release (flex and extend). Besides movement and flexibility, fascia maintains equilibrium (balance and functionality). Fascia’s other job is to guard injured tissue. When trauma or stress occurs, the web of connective tissue changes to protect the injured area; it also holds emotions from trauma and shock. Healthy fascia enhances proprioception (knowing where your body is in space.) As one of the largest sensory organs in the body, it is a major communication network within the body.
What happens to fascia?
Life happens: trauma, repetitive stress, surgery, and gravity all play a part in limiting flexibility. These stressors compress the connective tissue to form adhesions, and flexibility is reduced. Fascia will hold that compression and restrict mobility as it protects the body by limiting movement. Over time, the restriction grows or small injuries combine, and often persist after the original cause has gone.
How does aging affect fascia?
You’ve noticed one side of your body is stronger or more flexible than the other. That’s an example of compensations that horses and people develop. These patterns are the body’s ingenious way of continuing to manage around pain or limited flexibility. Bodies want to maintain equilibrium, so they compensate in order to keep going. Small injuries to the fascia can become bigger limitations as they accumulate. Most people believe that physical degeneration is part of aging, and tend to accept their growing limitations. Horses tend to hide their pain as a survival mechanism, and so we often discover their limitations when they influence performance. But the limitations started earlier, before movement was affected.
Why does bodywork make a difference?
Think of the fascial network as a sweater that’s stretchy, and where you have a snag, the neighboring stitches are bunched together around a big loop, stuck in a clump, and not as stretchy as before. Being stuck is what fascia does when injured. If not released, it thickens over time. The good news is that fascia is living tissue, and it can heal. There are many excellent bodywork modalities focused on releasing and lengthening connective tissue. The work is a lot like teasing the snag back into your sweater until you’ve restored flexibility. The process of release supports the living tissue to dump stored toxins and plump up as it re-hydrates and begins moving fluidly again.'