This post was originally written for The Heart of Hillsborough magazine.
We are more than just muscles and bones. Fascia is the name for the connective tissue that runs through our bodies, connecting bones to bones and bones to muscles (and much more). In fact, 30% of our muscle tissue is actually fascia. Our muscles like repetitive and rhythmic movements – these short-duration stresses build strength.
Fascia is different. Fascia, while flexible, doesn’t contract and lengthen as muscle does. Its job is to hold us together. Instead of responding to repetitive and rhythmic movements, it responds to long-held stress.
Fascia does more than just tie muscles to bone – it also provides a smooth surface between muscles and muscle groups to allow for smooth movement. But fascia thickens while we are still. Most of the time, we move enough to keep fascial tissue in good shape. However, as we age and slow down, or when we get an injury and stop moving in certain ways, fascial tissue thickens and becomes stiff and difficult to move.
Like muscles, fascia also responds to stress, changing shape to meet demand. Think about bad “computer posture” – the head looking down and forward lengthens the back of the neck and shortens the front of the chest. After a few years of this poor posture, you might find your shoulders “naturally” roll forward. Your fascial tissue has thickened to support this posture, and returning to a healthy posture requires constant muscular effort against the thickened fascia.
Likewise, an injury can prevents you from moving through a normal range of motion. Once you heal, you may be surprised to find you can no longer move in a particular way, or that movement is restricted or painful. Your fascia has thickened to better hold you together while your muscles and joints heal, and now it needs to be softened to restore motion.
Stiff fascia tissue responds to long-held stretches and stresses. When we hold a stretch for 30 seconds or longer, we begin to affect the fascia in our muscles, tendons and ligaments – smoothing out fibers and allowing fluids to move more freely and efficiently. Slower forms of yoga and stretching are excellent at restoring movement in fascial tissue in the entire body.
Another option that can be very effective, with little discomfort, is vacuum cupping. This therapy has its roots in ancient Eastern medicine, and has been used for a wide variety of ailments. Vacuum cupping creates negative pressure at the level of the skin – pulling stagnant, stuck waste materials out of congested places, and providing a targeted long, gentle pull to the fascial tissue beneath the surface of the skin.
Although you could receive cupping over much of your body, treatment is usually targeted at specific problem areas such as the rotator cuff (for shoulder pain) or IT band (for knee or some hip issues). Many types of bodyworkers offer vacuum cupping as a service – massage therapists, acupuncturists, physical therapists and even some chiropractors. It’s generally considered safe enough that, with a little education, you can do it yourself at home.
Regardless of whether you need treatment, it is important to move daily in as many ways as possible to keep fascial tissue elastic and healthy – if you don’t use that range of motion, you will lose it!