- Your fascia, the fibrous connective tissue found throughout your body, accounts for about 20 percent of your body mass
- Your fascia stores and moves water, and carries voltage, acting like an electrical wiring system
- Fascia may play a significant role in pain, especially back pain. The reason for this is because the fascia is one interconnected system, and when it loses its suppleness, pain can transfer from one region to another
- Fascia is made up of fibroblasts — cells that produce collagen and other fibers — held together by a surrounding matrix. Physical inactivity causes the fascia to tighten and become less supple
- The fascia’s ability to slide plays a major role in back pain. Fascia in people without back pain can slide about 75 percent of its length; in people with back pain, this movement is reduced to about 50 percent
By Dr. Mercola
The 2018 DW Documentary, “The Mysterious World Beneath the Skin,” delves into the workings and functions of your fascia, the fibrous connective tissue found throughout your body. Remarkably, this thin layer of tissue accounts for about 20 percent of your body mass.
As explained by Dr. Jerry Tennant in his book, “Healing Is Voltage: The Handbook,” your muscles are stacked one on top of the other in a specific order (much like batteries in a flashlight) to form a power pack. Each organ has its own battery pack, which is a stack of muscle batteries.
These muscle batteries are in turn surrounded by fascia, which acts as a semiconductor — an arranged metabolic molecule designed to move electrons at the speed of light, but only in one direction.
Together, the muscle stack and the surrounding fascia serve as the wiring system for your body, carrying the voltage from the muscle battery inside, out, through the fascia and to the appropriate organ. In addition to moving electricity, fascia also acts as a hydraulic pump, and is responsible for moving fluid around your body.
As noted by Dr. Dana Cohen, a doctor of internal medicine and author of “Quench: Beat Fatigue, Drop Weight, and Heal Your Body Through the New Science of Optimum Hydration,” a book about optimizing hydration, your fascia is actually a movement system for water in your body. To activate this system — and optimize cellular hydration — you have to engage in physical movement.
Pain Transfers Through Fascia
Fascia has long been overlooked, but its functions are now starting to be investigated at greater depth. According to the featured film, fascia may actually play a significant role in pain, especially back pain. The reason for this is because the fascia is one interconnected system, and when it loses its suppleness, pain can transfer from one region to another.
In other words, when you experience pain in an area, the actual cause and origin of that pain often stems from a completely different area. For example, Thomas Myers,1 an expert on fascia and coauthor of “Fascial Release for Structural Balance,” says he gets the best, long-term results in patients presenting with plantar fasciitis when treating the fascia in the lower leg, hamstrings or even the base of the neck.
According to Myers, the low back is a weak spot for most people, but the fact that it hurts there doesn’t mean a back problem is causing the pain. The pain may be sourced in the arches of your feet, knees, hips or shoulders, for example. Jan Wilke, Ph.D., is conducting sports medicine experiments in an effort to verify the anatomical chains proposed by Meyers and others.
His findings confirm that, for example, when moving the foot, the fascia in the lower thigh does glide back and forth, and by stretching the leg, mobility in the upper cervical spine of the neck increases. These findings suggest there is in fact a “force transmission across the fascia connections.” Wilke also suspects force is transmitted not only vertically throughout the body, but also horizontally, which is what Myers contends.
The film also features Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, a French hand surgeon, who singlehandedly has changed how medical professionals view fascia. While fascia has previously only been investigated using cadavers, Guimberteau wanted to understand its workings better in order to improve his own surgical techniques.
He came up with the ingenious idea to insert an electron microscope camera under the skin of a live patient. Footage is included in the film, but you can also see the water movement in action in the short video above. “It seems totally chaotic, but it isn’t,” Guimberteau says, adding the fascia is “a perfectly efficient system,” and one that makes life possible.
As noted in the film, “fascia exists everywhere in the body, in many shapes and consistencies.” Surface fascia is located directly beneath your skin, whereas deep fascia surrounds your muscles and organs, including your brain. Dr. Carla Stecco, who is also featured in the film, has made great contributions to our understanding of fascia by producing the first atlas of the human fascial system.2
This is the first time in human medical history that the entire fascial system of the human body has been systematically documented. Research by Robert Schleip, Ph.D., reveals fascia is made up of fibroblasts — cells that produce collagen and other fibers — held together by a surrounding matrix. Essentially, the fascia is primarily built out of collagen.
Physical Movement Is Essential for Healthy Fascia
Collagen is what allows your body to close a wound and is an important part of your body’s healing system. However, too much collagen can cause problems, and excessive collagen growth is a result of inactivity. One test showed that after keeping a broken arm in a sling for three weeks, the connective tissue had already begun to overgrow.
What Schleip’s research shows is that exercise is extremely important to maintain healthy fascia function — a finding that prompted Schleip himself to start doing daily jump rope exercises. Without adequate physical movement and exercise, the connective tissue structures start to overgrow, losing flexibility and suppleness. As mentioned earlier, cellular hydration is also impeded.
Overly tight fascia can even compress nerves and muscles, resulting in pain, either at the site or elsewhere in your body, via force transmission. The fascia is arranged in two layers, and when you move, those layers slide back and forth across each other. Healthy fascia has the ability to shift or slide about 75 percent of its total length.
This sliding ability, it turns out, plays an enormous role in back pain specifically. When comparing the fascia in people with and without back pain, fascia researcher Dr. Helene Langevin3 discovered that the main difference between the two is the ability of the fascia in their back to slide across each other with ease. Whereas healthy fascia can move about 75 percent of its length, in people with back pain, this movement is reduced to about 50 percent.
Like Schleip, Langevin believes excess collagen production is responsible for this reduction in the fascia layers’ ability to slide. Animal experiments demonstrate that exercise can counteract this overproduction, further confirming Schleip’s findings.
Healthy Fascia Is Important for Inflammation Control, Wound Healing and Pain Relief
Langevin also found that inflammation is decreased and wound healing is sped up through movement, such as gentle stretching. Why is that? Langevin found that when you stretch, the fibroblasts expand by up to 200 percent. The expansion of the cell causes it to transmit chemical signals ordering the muscle to relax. Langevin explains:
“What we found is that the stiffness of the connective tissue is actively regulated, minute by minute, by the fibroblasts. So, this is a dynamic, active cellular regulation of connective tissue tension. That could be important, because what we’re finding is that when you do acupuncture for example on the tissue, fibroblasts actually respond and expand and that helps the tissue relax. The same thing [occurs] with stretching.”
Another fascinating fact about fascia: It responds and contracts — completely independently of the muscles, nerves and organs it surrounds — to chemical messengers. Even more interesting, Schleip has discovered fascia responds not only to chemical messengers of inflammation but also to chemicals associated with emotional stress.
“It was a breakthrough for us to learn that the fascia also reacts to that, very, very slowly and sustainably,” Schleip says. This is more scientific proof supporting the idea that emotional stress can cause physical tension and pain. Last year, I wrote about the late Dr. John Sarno, who exclusively used mind-body techniques to treat patients with severe back pain.
He believed you unconsciously cause your own pain, and that pain is your brain’s response to unaddressed stress, anger or fear. The fact that fascia responds to your emotional state (via the chemicals produced by these states), helps explain why Sarno had such a remarkable success rate.
The culprit in question is a signaling molecule known as TGF, the release of which is triggered by stress. “If I’m tensed up for weeks, even in my sleep, it’s mainly the red muscle fibers that are tense. [But] they relax fairly quickly. It’s the white fascia tissue, the sheath around the muscle … that [gets] hard,” Schleip says.
The fascial system is now thought of as a tensegrity system. Tensegrity is a combination of the words “tension” and “integrity,” and tensegrity modeling helps us understand how the fascia works as a complete system to hold your body together.
The conventional view of the skeleton as a more or less rigid structure of connected bones is extremely misleading. As explained by Myer, your skeletal bones actually float freely, completely separated from each other. What holds the bones together is the connective tissue system. Were you to magically remove all the connective tissue in your body, your bone structure would collapse in a heap on the floor.
Similarly, the conventional view of the spine is that it’s a rigid “pole” of stacked vertebrae with cushioning discs in between. The tensegrity counter model, demonstrated by Schleip, reveals a very different picture of the spine. The vertebrae do not actually rest on or press down on each other.
Rather they too are free floating, held together by the tension of the connective tissue. As long as the fascia maintains the proper amount of tension on each vertebra, your spine will remain erect and pain free — even if you have disc degeneration.
The Importance of Water
As mentioned in the beginning, fascia also plays a crucial role in the movement of water. In fact, the connective tissue is made up of about 70 percent water, and physical movement helps keep this water moving. Hyaluronic acid acts as a lubricant for your connective tissue. As explained in the film, the hyaluronic acid forms a “sponge-like network that binds large quantities of water.”
As a result, the less hyaluronic acid you have, the less mobile you are, as your fascia will be drier, less supple and less able to slide properly. Here again, movement has been shown to be a crucial component. Low water content in the fascia makes it brittle and less elastic. Experiments reveal manual fascia manipulation techniques such as Rolfing help increase water reserves and suppleness of the fascia.
The force of the pressure appears to be key. When sufficient pressure was exerted on the fascia, it would actually fill up with more water once the pressure was released than it had before the pressure was applied. In other words, Rolfing helps press the old water out of the connective tissue, encouraging it to refill with fresh reserves.
If done hard enough, several times, the connective tissue ends up moister than it was before. The reason for this appears to be that hyaluronic acid flushes in along with the water, thereby improving the tissue’s ability to hold water. Massage, if done deeply and slowly enough, will also help. However, the most effective strategy is active movement.
The Importance of Exercise Recovery
With regular exercise, the fibroblasts increase their ability to produce fresh collagen. You can actually improve the quality of your fascia in as little as three days of active movement. However, severely agglutinated fascia — connective tissue that is firmly stuck together due to excess collagen production, caused by inactivity — can take up to one year to completely regenerate.
As you exercise, small tears in the fascia will occur, just as micro tears in your muscle occur during strength training. To allow the fascia to regenerate and heal, you’ll want to recuperate for two to three days after vigorous exercise. Schleip recommends “alternating high doses of tensile stress with a two- to three-day break.”
Is Fascia Pain Sensitive?
Dr. Siegfried Mense,4 professor of anatomy at the University of Heidelberg, is studying whether fascia itself is sensitive to pain, which would necessitate it to contain some sort of nerve fibers or nerve endings. Indeed, Mense discovered back fascia contains rather dense clusters of nerve fibers.
In other words, the fascia does have pain receptors, and this too may help explain otherwise inexplicable back pain. The question is, how can you determine whether the pain originates in the fascia or in the muscle? This can be quite difficult. That said, tests reveal that the pain response of the fascia is greater than that of the muscle itself.
As noted in the film, the fascia is really a “key organ of sensory perception,” and since stress has a direct impact on this connective tissue, that means your central nervous system is also a key component. Your sympathetic nervous system connects your brain to virtually every organ in your body. When triggered, your sympathetic nervous system responds with “fight or flight.”
A hypothesis brought forth by Mense is that the sympathetic nervous system may influence fascia via sympathetic nerve fibers embedded in the connective tissue. When those fibers are irritated through stress, chemicals are released that cause blood vessels to contract, thereby causing reduced blood flow and pain. He believes this may explain why many experience worsening back pain when they’re stressed.
Take Care of Your Fascia for Optimal Health
As you can see, your fascia is a vastly underestimated component of your body. The good news is it’s fairly simple to optimize the function and health of your connective tissue. All you need to do is to move your body more. Walk more. Exercise more. Stretch. There are many reasons to get more movement into your day, and now you can add caring for your fascia to that list. Doing so may help address any number of different aches and pains, especially back pain.