A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about nerve receptors at work in Bowen treatment. Many of those nerve receptors reside just under the skin in the layers of fascia. I was tempted to delve into fascia at the time, but it’s a subject so fascinating that it warrants some focus in it’s own right !
Want to watch a video version of this blog ? head to this youtube link…
What is fascia
In the simplest of terms, fascia is connective tissue.
Fascia is a fine fabric of soft connective tissue that forms a network throughout the entire body. It resides under the skin. It forms a sheath around muscles, as well as groups of muscles. It envelopes internal organs. It surrounds the brain, spine and peripheral nerves.
It’s a framework that protects muscles and organs. It’s a framework that provides the body with both stability and movement.
It’s the glue that holds us together.
What is fascia made of ?
Fascia is a three dimensional fabric of fibres and gel made of three main parts – collagen, elastin and “ground substance”.
The most predominant material is collagen. The collagen fibres are strong and form tightly woven bundles to create a fibrous tissue.
Elastin is a type of fibre that is able to stretch and recoil. This provides much of the stretchiness in some fascia, especially in areas like the skin, the ear and some ligaments.
Also key to the system is a watery gel referred to as “ground substance”. This material provides lubrication to the collagen fibres, as well as shock absorption (such synovial fluid in joint and bursa). It contains glycoaminoglycans, which includes a substance you may have heard of in skincare commercials – hyaluronic acid.
Together they form a network that is both strong and flexible.
Fascia has traditionally been seen as inert stuff. But we have since learned that it’s much more than just coating of muscles and organs. It has been found to have fine blood vessels and sensory nerve receptors. These receptors are responsive to manual pressure, with gentle stimulation through Bowen moves linking the entire body to the autonomic nervous system.
Fascia affects how our body moves
When fascia is healthy and hydrated, it is soft and pliable. It is able to move and glide without restriction, and has the ability to stretch.
Healthy fascia helps to maintain good posture. The fascia within the body is in tensional balance, ensuring everything is where is should be. The body is flexible and able to move well, as muscles are able to glide easily over each other.
However, the fascia can change when the body experiences damage or trauma of some kind. This damage may be a physical injury, surgery or inflammation. But it can also change with lack of activity, or a cumulative effect of habitual poor posture.
The ground substance in fascia is something that changes constantly based on needs and demands of the body. “Use it or lose it” is an apt term, as ground substance tends to dehydrate and thicken in response to trauma or inactivity in the area.
As this ground substance thickens, friction between muscles increases – those muscles can’t glide over each other easily. The area becomes a source of internal tension, with muscles requiring more effort to overcome friction. The body feels stiff and has trouble moving easily.
With time this stiffness in one place will prevent other areas from moving smoothly, thus causing more friction and tension in other parts of the body.
Everything is connected
All this fascia forms a fabric within the body, like a giant fibrous suit, interwoven over muscles and organs.
Let’s imagine our fascia is an actual suit for a moment. Or a slim-fitting shirt.
Try to lift your arm. You’ll probably find that the whole shirt moves. The sleeve moves up the arm. The bottom hem moves up your side. And when you return your arm, the shirt will largely return to it’s original position. Healthy fascia works a lot like that. While the arm moves, other parts of the body are also moving and stretching in unison.
Now, what if that shirt hem was tucked in tightly into your trousers, the hemline not allowed to rise or move. Can your arm move freely ? is it able to lift easily ? or is the fabric below preventing full movement ?
Fascia moves and responds in a similar way. When it is able to move freely, the whole body can move. When fascia is restricted somewhere, the impact may be felt in a very different place.
So if we apply that shirt and arm example to real life… Often when an arm is not moving freely, the shoulder is blamed. Pain may be felt in the shoulder, and so that’s where treatment is expected to be focussed.
But what if the problem is not actually coming from the shoulder, but from the hip ? Would treating the shoulder help ? Or might treating the hip area yield better results ?
Are we better to treat the cause of the problem or the effect ?
Fascia in bodywork and Bowen Therapy
Bowen moves are known to influence the body through the fascia.
Most who have had Bowen realise that sensations are often felt in a very different part of the body to where the move was done. And these are often a clue to where the body is feeling restricted.
Through the work documented in Anatomy Trains, commonly seen patterns and lines of fascia have been recognised. Trauma in a particular area can result in lines of pull, and then symptoms seen somewhere else. It can explain how someone has a sore knee months after untreated whiplash. It can explain how someone has developed a dowager’s hump in the years following bunion surgery.
Those fascia lines are used by many Bowen therapists to link the area the client knows to be a problem, with other restricted areas the therapist sees or feels. Some of those interesting impacts of Bowen treatments, where moves impact elsewhere in the body, make a whole lot of sense through understanding these linkages.
The lines running through the body can explain how work done on shoulder blades allows someone’s hamstrings to release. It can explain how work focussing on rebalancing the pelvis allows a shoulder to return to correct location with improved range of movement. It can explain how work on the jaw can help the body return to upright.
Fascia is wonderful when the body moves freely. But when restrictions are felt, treating the site of the pain may not be the solution – the problem may lie elsewhere.
It’s all connected.
Key information source:
Anatomy Trains book and website (www.anatomytrains.com)
Course notes – Fascia Journal Club – Northwest School of Structural Therapy
extracellular matrix and fascia lines – from Anatomy Trains
sculpture by Edoardo Tresoldi