Fascia is the focus of this essay, part of MASSAGE Magazine’s 35th-anniversary coverage.
It has been my self-appointed task since 1974, when I first met Ida Rolf, PhD, and switched my career to bodies, to follow the twists and turns in the significance of our fascial webbing to the manual therapy and movement professions.
While everything — nerves, joints, muscles, psychology, spirit, connection — is important in massage, every reader of this article is working at a disadvantage if they are only paying lip-service to this fascial buzzword without understanding the central role this tissue and its properties have in your work. It bears on our clients’ shape, pain, abilities, resilience and feeling of presence.
The Evolution of our Understanding of Fascia
It is customary, when asked to look back — 45 years, but who’s counting? — to rhapsodize on how far we’ve come. And yes, the picture has filled in, especially with the five international research congresses devoted to the biomechanical role of fascia. (And the next one, which will be quite exciting, is coming up in Montreal in September 2021. Come see for yourself.)
But all-in-all, as I look back, I am instead impressed with how prescient Rolf was to focus on fascial tissues and their properties. The fundamental insights that inspired me among so many have been modified for sure, but not at all dislodged.
Rolf would be pleased with how much her idea of fascia has been absorbed into the complementary healing professions and athletics. (She would also be peeved at some of the facile statements that some are now making, either dismissing fascia altogether as a factor in recovery, or ascribing magical powers to what is, after all, a workaday tissue with both properties and limitations.)
Fascia: The Body’s Saucepan
The fascial system is woven into every process in the body. It is the immediate environment for every cell, and the saucepan for every physiological process we cook up.
The medical system can no longer ignore fascia as mere packing material.
New research establishes fascia’s central role in postural support, athletics and injury repair.
Although there is more to be known, the research we do have has filled in some of the picture beyond the stretch-the-fascia mantra we were all spouting back in the ’70s. Here are a few of the highlights:
• Your brain is listening to your fascia, but talking to your muscles. We all thought that muscles had lots of sensory nerves, and the fascia was pretty much senseless.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We now estimate around six to 10 times as many sensory nerves inhabit your fascia as inhabit your muscle tissue. This makes fascia a richer sensory organ than your eyes or your tongue. That interest does not extend to motor nerves — as far as we know, all motor nerves go to muscles, striated or smooth, and none go to fascia.
• Focus on ground substance gels. In the ’70s, we all thought of fascia as the wiry white sinews. Now, we are much more focused on the gel and liquid parts of the fascia as the engine of change. These various ionized and mucous-like gels create a spectrum of building materials from cartilage to the egg white of joint fluid.
• Fascial properties. While bodyworkers focused on fascia’s plastic properties, athletics focused on its elastic and viscous properties. We are all focused on fascia’s ability to remodel in response to our therapy, injury, or loaded movement of all types.
• Connection to physiology. Increasingly the overlap between the immune system and the fascial system is coming into focus, bringing together cancer and auto-immune research into contact with bodyworkers.
Far from spreading a metastasizing tumor, it is now emerging that good bodywork and specific loaded movement stints may well inhibit the cancer’s growth. This is a very exciting new avenue.
Fascia Demands — and Rewards — our Attention
Exciting new discoveries do not replace Ida Rolf’s vision, but polish it so its light shines farther. Fascia is not more important than muscles, nerves and fluid hydration, but it is equally significant. Enmeshed with all these other tissues, and under our hands with every stroke, fascia definitely rewards our attention.
About the Author
Tom Myers is the author of Anatomy Trains and directs trainings in fascial anatomy and Structural Integration worldwide. Tom is also a MASSAGE Magazine All Star, one of a group of body-therapy masters who have dedicated their lives to empowering and informing massage professionals.