by Thomas Myers
The second International Fascia Research Congress was held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in October. This unique biennial event brings together scientific researchers in the field of myofascial, connective tissue matrix and biomechanics to present their findings to clinicians. More than 500 practitioners attended, from all over the map in our field, from reiki to Rolfing, neuromuscular therapy to myofascial release—and from all throughout the world as well.
The mechanics of bone and muscle has long occupied the thinking of trainers, massage therapists and physiotherapists. Only recently, mostly disseminating from the pioneering work of Ida Rolf, has study focused on the role of the non-Newtonian fluid of the connective tissues (often called fascia for short, though the precise classification of fascia is a hot topic), which mediate between the muscles and bones and constitute more than 40 percent of the protein in a human body.
Fascia is more than just the stuff anatomists cut away and trash on their way to the more interesting muscles, organs and cells; it is a dynamic system that listens to and modulates our internal tensional environment, and remodels itself in light of gravity, trauma, injury, inflammation, attitude and patterns of self-use that show up in sports, performance and daily activities, as well as deeper emotional and spiritual expression.
Understanding the muscles and bones is important, but it is not enough to see the whole dynamic. Adding the strange and wonderful properties of fascia to our study of the muscles allows soft-tissue workers to branch out with more confidence into the realms once reserved for the osteopath, chiropractor and orthopedist—not to take over their scopes of practice, but to extend the effective social and therapeutic reach of trained soft-tissue work.
The first International Fascia Research Congress, held in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2007 and initially funded by the International Association of Structural Integrators and the Rolf Institute, showed how wide the gulf was between practitioners, who are passionate about their methods but steeped in lore, and scientists, who are great at asking good questions and setting up experiments but often have no sense of the feel of the body or the multifactorial environment in which practitioners live and work every day.
Last year’s congress, sponsored by many organizations, including the Massage Therapy Foundation and the newly formed Ida P. Rolf Research Foundation, brought us farther up the mountain that separates the working practitioner from the working researcher, although it will be a while before we meet at the top. The dialogue is fruitful to both, but requires some learning outside the box on both sides.
Actually, it is quite surprising both how little and how much research is being done with the connective tissues. On one hand, a great deal of research has been done in the realm of connective tissue and immunity in these days of increasing autoimmune diseases. On the other hand, so little is known about how fascia holds us together; where its architecture is supposed to stick and where it is supposed to slide; how it transmits force; and how it responds to the usual catalogue of misuse, abuse, disuse and overuse.
Featured presentations at last year’s congress included many on myofascial force transmission—the famous Stecco family, who has done such great work on fascia in Italy, was there in force—examining questions including: How does the power get from muscle to bone via fascia? How much elasticity is involved? Which tissues really do the heavy lifting? It turns out, according to researcher Peter Purslow, Ph.D., that the endomysium (the cotton candy in the middle) is even more involved than the stronger-looking epimysium (the blue-white muscle envelope).
After many years of presumption, in every kinesiology text known to man, that forces are shifted from insertion to origin (or vice versa), the group led by physiologist Peter Huijing, Ph.D., has convincingly shown fascia distributes significant amounts of that force to surrounding muscles. This is very relevant to compartment syndrome clients, and confirms our intuition that all the fasciae work together to resist injury.
Sometimes research confirms intuition, and sometimes the counter-intuitive perversely turns out to be true. We all have our expectations and ideas, but you do not really know unless the question gets asked in a scientific, Buddhistically dispassionate way.
Last year also marked a reaching out into more variable fields: A surgeon spoke on fascial forces in reconstructive surgery, and South African physiotherapist Willie Fourie eloquently outlined the difficulties in fascial recovery from breast cancer surgery and radiation.
One section of the conference explored the effect of tools—the Graston technique fascial tools, functional taping, the Fulford percussor and dry needling—on fascia. Another explored the innervation of fascia, which has recently been shown to be the body’s richest sensory organ.
Helene Langevin, M.D., who started in acupuncture research that led her directly to fascial research, presented her newest findings on cytoskeletal remodeling in fibroblasts. This elegant experiment will show up in your textbooks and classrooms, as it points to new ways of getting the most release from fascial binding in the superficial tissues.
While the first congress focused on the contractile properties of the newly discovered myofibroblasts and the tensegrity nature of our fascial system, this time tensegrity seemed to be taken for granted, and the contractile properties of every cell seemed to be up for discussion.
The most heartfelt moment was when longtime fascial researcher James Oschman, Ph.D., was honored for his many years of crying in the wilderness about the importance of fascial tissues and the need for research. The congress was also treated to a new film on the fascial structure of the skin from surgeon Jean-Claude Guimberteau, M.D., whose Strolling Under the Skin was such a hit during the first conference.
It is great to see fascia finally getting its due, and to see how many researchers and practitioners are getting together to make both endeavors more productive. The third International Fascia Research Congress is scheduled for early 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and will be organized by the Massage Therapists’ Association of British Columbia. This is a great opportunity to catch up on the cutting edge of research that affects your field, your work and your future.
Thomas Myers directs Kinesis, which offers continuing education worldwide in fascial anatomy and technique, as well as professional certification in KMI Structural Integration (www.AnatomyTrains.com). He studied with Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Emilie Conrad and various European osteopaths to forge his unique point of view on spatial medicine, developed in the best-selling text, Anatomy Trains (Elsevier, 2001, 2009).