Saturday, June 18, 2011

Aspects of Deep Tissue Bodywork Part II – Fascia: Structure, Function & Mobility

In the previous post, we underscored the importance of a clear understanding of muscle anatomy and function for a deep tissue therapist.  You would want such understanding then also to include the connective tissue, which permeates the entire physical structure from the level of the different muscles and muscle groups to the level of the cell.

The connective tissue is the binding, containing and shape-giving fibrous tissue of the body.  It provides the skin its tensile strength and adheres it firmly to the underlying structures.  The fibrous mesh of connective tissue not only divides various organs and tissues into separate compartments but also binds them together to form complex systems.  Various systems then are connected to each other to form the organism as a whole.  Connective tissue including the fascia is an all-pervasive primary material of the body, responsible for harmonious and controlled movement of all the body parts.

In relation to orthopedic muscle sculpting, the part of connective tissue, which is of relevance here, is the superficial and deep fascial layer.

Fascia develops from mesoderm (one of the three dermal layers in an embryo), the layer, which also forms muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, cartilage and tendons. Of all of them, the fascia is the least differentiated structure. The superficial layer of the fascia lies just below the skin along the entire surface area of the body. This layer is important for organizing the body and maintaining the skin’s tone. Being one continuous sheath, chronic tension and scarring which reduce the flexibility of the fascia at any point, will be reflected in changes all through the structure much like a balloon if pinched in one place, the shortening is reflected in changes throughout the surface.

The deep layer of fascia is dense, tough, bluish-white fibrous tissue devoid of fat. This layer of fascia surrounds the muscle bundles, each muscle as well as each muscle fiber. The fascial coverings of each of them are continuous with those surrounding the neighboring muscle fibers. The fascial sheaths at the ends of these muscle bundles collect together and form the tendons, which in turn get attached to the bones. This network of connective tissue fascia extends, as fibrous support, up to the cellular level and in fact according to recent research up to the level of cell nuclei.

Through this extensive network of connective tissue, everything in our bodies is connected to everything else. Minor tension in any portion of the network will affect the distribution of the tension throughout the network. Long lines of the fascia work together. For example, shortening in a long muscle in the thigh will pull in long lines down the fascial sheets and affect muscular alignment below the knee and into the foot. The deep fascia, as a result of this chronic tension then thickens and loses its flexibility. If the reason of chronic tension is skeletal mal-alignment, the fascia can harden like a bone in order to provide support much like a splint. Thus fascia possesses a unique ability to mould itself according to the body’s way of handling gravity. This very special gel-like quality of the fascia is called Thixotropy. It becomes more fluid and flexible when it is stirred up like while doing physical activity or aerobic exercise, or stretches; and it gets solidified and contracts when sits without being disturbed as in a case of paralysis or mal-aligned posture leading to stiffness and inflexibility.

It is this property of fascia, which makes it accessible to orthopedic muscle sculpting. When a body part loses some degree of movement and vitality through trauma or disease, it might not be possible to keep the connective tissue warm and resilient through vigor and activity. In such cases, deep tissue manipulation by a skilled therapist can provide a pleasant and extremely effective means of re-introducing freer movements and flow of energy through the connective tissue framework. Deep tissue manipulation of deep fascia can literally raise the level of mechanical activity in a weak limb thus raising the metabolic rate and restoring the fluidity of the fascia.

Nothing chemical or structural needs to be added or subtracted from the body. By means of skillful manipulative pressure and stretching, the temperature and energy levels of the body part can be raised slightly. This warmth promotes a more fluid, gel-like, ground substance, in which nutrients and cellular wastes can conduct exchanges efficiently. The fluidity decreases the pain and increases the range of movement in stiff and painful parts of the body.

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