What Is Fascia – And How Does It Cause Pain?
Everything You Need To Know About Fascia!
By now, you’re probably not a stranger to the terms ‘fascia’ or ‘myofascial release’. You may have heard it talked about at Ascent Chiropractic or it may have come up during during a yoga, physical therapy, or massage session. But what exactly is it?
High school biology class taught us all about the bones, muscles, organs, nerves, and blood vessels that make up our body, but chances are the term fascia (pronounced like “fashion”) was never even mentioned. As it turns out, this fascia system plays a hugely crucial role in the way your body functions, moves, and maintains its shape.
If you’ve ever used a foam roller, Hypervolt massager, or had Graston (scraping) therapy done at Ascent, you’ve already been taking care of your fascia, even if you didn’t realize that’s what you were doing. However, to take that treatment to the next level, you need to understand how your fascia works.
“We thought fascia was nothing, but now we know that it is everything.”
–Jean Claude Guimberteau, MD
Fascia-nating: The tissue around your muscles
Fascia is a single, seamless mesh that spans the entire body, allowing for connecton and communication between all its various parts.
It’s made up of fibrous glycoproteins that surround and permeate every muscle, bone, nerve, tendon, ligament and organ in the body. These fibers are organized in different directions, creating a web-like covering that can adapt to the body’s movement, no matter which way it’s being pulled.
It’s also responsible for maintaining structural integrity – holding everything together – and allowing for coordinated movement, flexibility and stability.
In other words, think of your fascia like a spandex bodysuit that you wear under instead of over your skin.
Some fascia is thin, like the pericardium surrounding the heart, and some is thick, like the tough iliotibial (IT) band that runs down along the side of your thighs.
Without fascia holding everything in place, fluid would gather at your feet, your organs would be loose and float around freely, and your muscles would literally fall apart as soon as you tried to use them.
How does fascia cause pain?
Fascia is also the body’s richest sensory organ. Your fascia has 250 million nerve endings for pain, temperature and movement, providing our bodies with more sensory feedback than even our eyes and skin. It has 10 times as many sensory receptors as our muscles do, and much of the pain and soreness we blame on muscles actually comes from the surrounding fascia.
Let’s return to the idea of fascia as a spandex bodysuit you wear 24/7. Like spandex, healthy fascia is smooth, slippery and flexible. But there are certain things that can lead to inflammation in fascial tissue and cause it to become stiff and sticky.
These factors include a lifestyle of limited physical activity, joint misalignment and dysfunction, repetitive movement that overworks one part of the body, and trauma from surgery or injury. Your body then tends to repair the damage to the fascia by rebuilding it with poorly-organized scar tissue.
With a spandex bodysuit, you can patch up a tear in the fabric, but it won’t stretch and move like it did when it was new. And because it’s one big, interconnected suit, it’ll probably cause abnormal pulling and tugging at other spots as well.
In the same way, when fascia is restricted or stuck in one area, it can create tension and pain throughout the rest of the body. For example, if you walk with an anteriorly tilted pelvis or tend to over-pronate your feet, it can tug at fascia surrounding your lumbar spine and cause pain and tightness in your lower back.
This is why fascia plays a key role in conditions like chronic lower back pain, pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, headaches, and even some breathing and cardiovascular disorders. By releasing the tension in the fascia that’s stuck, the body can regain its natural alignment and movement.
Where’s the pain actually coming from?
Determining whether your pain is due to muscles, joints or fascia can be challenging. But typically, if your pain stems from muscle or joint issues, it tends to intensify with physical activity. Conversely, discomfort associated with fascia problems tends to subside with movement and also tends to respond well heat therapy (unlike joint issues), which restores the tissue’s flexibility.
Problems that improve with fascia treatment
Chronic Lower Back Pain
Low back pain the #1 reason people seek medical care in the US – it’s certainly the most common reason patients seek us out at Ascent Chiropractic. Approximately 29% of American adults suffer from low back pain at any given moment and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.
While muscle imbalances, spine and pelvis misalignment, disc injuries and degenerative changes get the bulk of the blame for back pain, fascia plays a huge role as well. The fascia near the ankles and hips is particularly susceptible to dysfunction, which can pull everything out of balance.
At Ascent we use a combination of hands-on techniques and tools to eliminate fascial restrictions. According to a 2021 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, adding this type of fascial release therapy to traditional chiropractic and physical therapy approaches significantly reduces the disability caused by lower back pain.
All of the body’s fascial lines actually run directly through the pelvis, making it a common area of pain. If you’re experiencing pelvic pain, we’ll usually examine, diagnose and correct any structural alignment issues and then work with you to develop a program of fascia manipulation along with targeted stretches and exercises to do at home.
Tension headaches are a common issue, often caused by staring at screens for extended periods of time. This can lead to restriction of the fascia of the neck, causing headaches. Research out of Harvard Medical School has also shown that more serious headaches, like occipital neuralgia and migraines, also have a fascial component.
So how do you fix fascia pain?
There are numerous approaches for releasing adhesions in fascia, each with its own group of proponents and detractors. From “melting” fascia to using tools to “scrape” it, the techniques for correcting fascia problems can range from gentle to extremely intense.
Self Myofascial Release (SMR) Techniques
Self Myofascial Release simply refers to fascia techniques that you can do completely on your own.
While foam rollers are specifically designed for self-myofascial release, you can get similar results from almost any dense, rollable object – like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball. The best tool depends on your level of tightness and the area that you’re rolling.
We’re also fans of the Hypervolt line of percussive massage tools. They deliver targeted vibration and percussion therapy into your muscles, helping improve circulation, relax muscle fibers, break up myofascial adhesions and even increase your range of motion without having to spend hours on a massage table.
Fascia “Melting” Techniques
Techniques that claim to “melt” fascia often use heat and massage to soften the tissue and improve its elasticity. Proponents of this method argue that heat and massage are effective ways to reduce pain and improve mobility by breaking up adhesions and restoring normal fascia function.
Fascia “Blasting” Techniques
Other brands promote a “blasting” approach to fascia correction, using high-powered tools to break up tight tissue and improve mobility. This method can be effective for quickly reducing pain and improving function, but some experts argue that it can be too aggressive and cause further damage to the delicate tissue.
At the opposite extreme of the spectrum are Graston or IASTM (instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization) techniques that use hard-edged tools to “scrape” the fascia, breaking up adhesions and restoring normal function. These methods can be effective for quickly reducing pain and improving mobility.
Manual “Hands-On” Techniques
Finally, some techniques (like Active Release Therapy or ART) aim to gently massage the fascia back into its proper shape using hands-on manual therapy. This approach is often referred to as “myofascial release,” and proponents argue that it is the gentlest and most effective way to release and eliminate adhesions in the fascia surrounding the muscles.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for fixing fascia, as each person’s body is unique and responds differently to various techniques. When it comes to fascia correction, the best approach may be a combination of methods, tailored to the individual’s needs.
The Bottom Line on Fascia
Whether you’re a pro athlete, weekend warrior, or just looking to get out of pain, study after study shows that combining fascial release techniques with chiropractic care and active rehabilitation like we do at Ascent Chiropractic is the best way to correct musculoskeletal problems, reduce pain, and allow you to reach your full potential.
Looking for a Brookfield chiropractor who specializes in fascia treatment? To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.
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