Updated: Jul 28, 2022
A New Understanding of Fascia
(Connective tissue in the body)
Fascia is made up of sheets of connective tissue in the form of a fibrous web below the skin. These tissues attach, stabilize, impart strength, maintain vessel patency, separate muscles, and enclose and connect different organs. We used to use the term fascia to describe the dissectible tissue seen in the body encasing other organs, muscles, and bones. But the definition keeps expanding!
Scientists and doctors used to think fascia contained no blood, no lymph, no innervation on the interior. Now we understand it’s very vascular (thinner blood vessel system than in other tissues), extremely innervated (outside of the skin, the most concentrated areas of nerve endings in the body are in dense areas of fascia), the host and vehicle for the lymphatic system.
Fascia also provides a nourishing and lubricating layer around your lungs which intertwines with your pericardium—the layer of fascia around your heart. You’ll also find connective tissue around all of your digestive organs, and it connects and lines the inside and outside of reproductive organs and endocrine glands.
Fascia creates tension/contraction of muscles and stability of joints, as well as monitors release of this mechanical tension (and we don’t know how yet!) It’s not just ligaments and tendons doing this work, but those are two of the obvious structural forms of fascia.
Fascia is extremely innervated: with nociceptors, proprioceptors, mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, and chemoreceptors present in the fascia. Proprioceptors aid us through movement and exercise. Mechanoreceptors allow the nervous system to handle more load if needed, but also allow for release of tension through deep pressure. (Cue the reminder about regular foam rolling and massage benefits!) Nociceptors give us information about strains, sprains, extremes, and pain, keeping us out of trouble.
The lymphatic system courses through and is housed within layers of connective tissue in superficial and deep fascia. Keeping the fascia healthy, keeps the lymphatic system flowing and operating well.
Chemical and Hormonal Support:
Fascia is also found in each of your endocrine glands and plays a key role in transmitting hormones (e.g. adrenaline, estrogen, insulin, thyroid hormones, oxytocin) and neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine) throughout your body. This role in the endocrine system indicates further involvement with the nervous and immune systems. It’s all connected, y’all!
Some of the best movement practices for fascia health are: yoga, intuitive movement like dance, foam rolling, and swimming.
Additionally, the use of sensory awareness practices, meditation, breath practices, heat therapies, massage therapy, acupuncture, and other bodywork practices can help you stay in balance.
For self care: staying hydrated, reducing sugar intake, sleeping well (and enough) are important parts of keeping your fascia healthy.
Benefits of Yoga and Massage for Fascial Health:
Yoga really lives up to the hype in terms of fascia health. You build internal heat with movement and breath, create internal pressure with the breath combined with postures, create external pressure and torque with twists and binds. Like lots of types of exercise, you also increase blood and lymph flow and create more flow and exchange of nutrients in the interstitial fluid (the fluid in the space between the tissues) to lubricate and nourish all the systems in the body. On top of that, in yoga, you engage the nervous system through sensory awareness and breath practices.
Massage therapy is an obvious practice for improving fascia health for many of the same reasons listed above. Swedish/relaxation massage can improve circulation, soothe the skin, restore the nervous system, while deep tissue and trigger point massage can utilize the mechanoreceptors to achieve broader release of fascia. Myofascial massage targets fascial planes that broadly cover portions of the body to help the musculoskeletal system function with more efficiency and less pain. Lymphatic massage can improve tendon and ligament health by keeping inflammation from pooling in certain areas, gradually degrading those and other types of tissues in that area.