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What is Fascia/Myofascial Release and how does it effect me?
Fascia is connective tissue that surrounds our bodies three dimensionally and it can get restricted, meaning that we lose our flexibility producing pain. Muscle and fascia are united by this connective tissue forming the myofascia system. Myofascial release is a form of massage that focuses on this system to reduce pain and aid mobility. Fascia and Myofascial release are complex subjects, which only started to become generally talked about in the nineties. This article gives background to fascia, how it could affect you and how pain can be eased by Myofascial release.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is made up of a number of substances but mainly collagen which we produce throughout our lives. Fascia builds up in the body and looks a bit like a spider’s web. That is why we often feel stiff in the mornings and why we should stretch to help remove the growing fascia bonds that have grown overnight – like a dog or cat does every morning! Fascia is located between the skin and the underlying structure of muscle and bone. It is a seamless web of connective tissue (like a 3-D cling film) that covers and connects the muscles, organs, and skeletal structures in our body.
Fascia, although connected has three layers starting with the superficial layer directly under the skin (also called the adipose or fatty layer) which can be as thin as a couple of millimetres to several centimeters thick but is always connected to the skin.
The second layer is the deep fascia, a much more densely packed and strong layer. I tell my clients that they encounter it after they remove the skin from a chicken breast, as it is the whitish coloured thin sheets of tissue above the breast muscle. Deep fascia covers the muscles, which help to keep the muscles divided and protected. The third layer is the subserous fascia, which lies between the deep layer and major organs of the body and is not covered within this article, as it is not directly addressed through massage therapy.
How does it affect me?
Injury, lack of movement, postural distortion, repetitive movement patterns, stress and ageing can cause the fascia to lose its elasticity such that it becomes thickened, tough, and rigid. Also, the fascia between two or more muscles can become adhered together such that when you move one muscle you actually drag several others along as well. As a result, range of movement deteriorates, and the involved muscles can become quite painful. Movement restriction that you might believe to be due to muscle tightness could in fact be derived from fascia issues.
Myofascial release refers to the manual massage technique for stretching the fascia and releasing bonds between fascia and the skin and muscles. So Myofascial release aims to eliminate pain and increase range of motion for our muscles and joints.
There are many methods of Myofascial release. The ‘Bowen technique’ & ‘Rolfing’ are two systems that affect the fascia. Other forms are divided into direct or indirect methods. I work mainly with a direct approach, which is more assertive on the muscle & fascia but a little more uncomfortable eg muscle rolling technique. I do also use some indirect methods with very gentle cross-handed stretches but this does take a lot longer as you hold the stretch and wait for the tissue to ‘unwind’ itself. Many clients are restricted at the top of their shoulders and I find a long slow dry stretch down the back is a great start to releasing fascia in this area.
I covered Myofascial release during my general sports massage training (NVQ Level 5) and have since done three further courses on the subject and undertaken a lot of background research. There is some great information and video on YouTube by Gil Hedley called the Fuzz speech and is worth a look if you want to know more and see actual pictures of fascia on cadavers.
Fascia is complex and we are still learning about it. Any massage work will naturally work or touch the fascia but certain specific techniques are required to be carried out for successful removal of the restrictions in the fascia system. Stiffness is often not your muscles feeling tight but in fact the fascia tightening up. We all need to move and stretch more. Our bodies are marvellous machines designed to do endless different movements but when we restrict our range of movements we are not stretching the ‘Fuzz’ as Gil Hedley says and the fuzz starts creeping back like a spider’s web of collagen fibres making us stiffer and later giving us pain.
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