Unexplained aches and pains could be down to an overlooked part of your anatomy, called fascia. We look at what this connective tissue is, why it could be causing you pain and how to release tight fascia…
A sharp twinge in the shoulder or a grinding ache in the back are debilitating everyday experiences for millions of women in the UK. About 38 per cent of women have chronic pain, most commonly back pain. Not knowing its cause means it can’t be treated in order to heal, only masked. An estimated 7.1 million adults in England are regularly prescribed painkillers. But new research is uncovering an overlooked source of unexplained aches and pains – one that can be tackled with simple lifestyle changes to ease your sore spots, naturally: fascia.
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What is fascia?
You might already have heard of fascia, but if you haven’t, this connective tissue runs throughout your body, protecting your internal organs, cells, nerves, vessels and muscles. ‘Fascia is like scaffolding for your body. It’s a matrix of structural support around cells, keeping everything in place. It’s made from layers of mostly collagen fibres plus some elastic fibres with a viscous gel containing hyaluronic acid between the layers, allowing for flowing, easy movement,’ says Camilla Ranje Nordin, fascia teacher at The Fascia Guide, an insightful online educational resource.
Until recently, fascia was thought to play a passive role in the body, but new findings from scientists such as Professor Carla Stecco at the University of Padova, Italy, have redefined fascia as an active functional system, enabling cell communication, which is vital for tissue repair, immunity and keeping your body in balance (homeostasis).
Fascia allows for the smooth flow of movement and for the free flow of communication between different body parts. So, it’s a very sensitive connective system that can become tightened or thickened in places, which may cause pain. ‘Fascia is loaded with nerve and pain receptors. If it becomes dense it puts pressure on these receptors, causing pain. Fascia can become dense from inflammation or from lack of movement,’ says Stecco.
Causes of tight fascia
New research shows increased density or thickening in sections of fascia that enclose lower back muscles can cause otherwise unexplained back pain. Another study found fascia is sensitive to changing levels of sex hormones, such as oestrogen, which may explain why more women than men suffer from chronic pain, and it also suggests a reason for aches and pains that come and go throughout the month.
Other causes of fascia dysfunction due to thickening include stress, diet and poor posture. ‘Fascia loads and unloads pressure as you move, so having bad posture for too long can cause fascia to adjust to that position, then the fascia becomes dense in that spot and you get pain,’ says Axel Bohlin, founder of The Fascia Guide. ‘Stress and a sugary diet are also a common cause because cortisol can inflame fascia,’ he adds.
Improving your fascia health to alleviate pain isn’t complicated but you have to remember to incorporate it into your routine every day. ‘A healthy lifestyle with moderate exercise such as long walks, reducing stress, a nutritious diet and sleeping well will keep fascia healthy. Regular movement is especially important to stop fascia tightening up,’ says Bohlin, who advocates doing stretches and
‘If you sit at a desk all day, be sure to stand and stretch your arms and neck often – and take proper breaks every 45 minutes to walk around. Deep breathing is also essential as it reduces stress and can lower blood pressure (see more tips below). Sounds simple but we often forget to do these things.’
How to release tight fascia with Rolfing
Targeted massage is also a good method for releasing tight fascia and easing pain. A study found that manipulating the fascia with massage resulted in a significant reduction in pain. One such beneficial technique is Rolfing a method of deep tissue manipulation, created by US biochemist Dr Ida Rolf. Benefits include improved posture, flexibility and range of movement, as well as managing acute and chronic pain. ‘Rolfers work with their hands to change the structure of the fascia system, which often has imbalances, such as parts that are bunched up, or parts not functioning so well,’ says certified Rolfer, Hayley Matthews.*
Rolfers manually work on fascia in various parts of the body, and slowly unravel the layers of fascia stuck together in adhesions due to posture, repetitive movements, injuries or trauma. ‘If you have an injury or if you repeatedly put strain on your posture, such as by sitting at a desk daily or playing tennis a lot, then fascia holds that tension. It’s a web connecting the whole body, so very often connects your habits and injuries together,’ says Matthews.
6 tips to prevent and release tight fascia
Camilla Ranje Nordin and Axel Bohlin of The Fascia Guide show you how to prevent and release tight fascia.
1. Deep breathe
Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which helps you relax. Try to breathe through your nose, rather than mouth, as this can lower blood pressure. Inhale for six seconds through your nose. Hold for six seconds, then exhale for six seconds through your nose. Spend 10 minutes every day deep breathing. This lowers your breathing rate and moves your diaphragm low in your body so your shoulders and neck relax, reducing stress.
This could be simple and gentle arm or neck stretches, or yoga moves. Any daily movement with slow stretching of your body helps fascia suppleness and elasticity.
Top tip: Yin Yoga is a style of yoga which aims to release tight fascia by holding certain asanas (postures) for a long period of time. Look for a local class or try an online tutorial.
3. Move frequently
Avoid sitting for too long in the same position. Get up, fidget and take regular breaks from desk work.
4. Don’t strain
Whether through bad posture, repetitive movements, heavy lifting or twisting, straining causes fascia damage and creates inflammation and movement restrictions.
5. Cut down on sugar
Sugar is known to initiate inflammatory processes in the body, and can produce rigidity in the fascia.
Stress triggers high levels of cortisol, which can cause inflammation of the fascia, resulting in pain.
Head to fasciaguide.com/fasciamovie where you can watch a film about fascia and also how to keep it healthy and pain-free.
Words: Angela Kennedy | Images: Shutterstock