What is fascia? Why is it hard to make a short muscle lengthen permanently?

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After the initial shock of thinking, ‘My goodness, she has a voice like a man’, I realised this is a voice over of a German TV programme.  The short clip is a good, brief, introduction to the fascia, the layer of connective tissue that lies over the top of the muscles.  The blog, How the body works, also showed how it covers muscle bundles and muscle fibres.  In its simplest form, the fascia helps the muscles and muscle parts slide over each as they contract and relax.  The easiest way to feel this stuff is to very, very lightly rub the back of your hand in little circles.  After a bit, you will become aware of a sort of slippery glove between the skin and bone.  This is the superficial fascia.

This superficial fascia covers the whole of the body like a giant complex, body stocking.  As we saw in the clip, it is not just a single sheet, but is fractal.  We saw how it contracts and lengthens with the muscles – and apparently can work independently of muscles.  There are now several different schools of massage that realise just how much of a problem tight fascia can be and have developed techniques to stretch it.

So why does fascia get tight?  When a muscle is short and tight, the 3 most common sites being the crease at the front of the hip, the sole of the foot and the palm of the hand, the superficial fascia above also contracts.  As a further experiment, if you work on a keyboard a lot or drive or work with your hands in a contracted shape, as if holding a ball, if you rub your thumb strongly up the palm of the other hand, between the bones, you will feel a crunchy, crispy, possibly painful sensation.  This is the fascia of the palm.  Since the hand is held in a rounded position for hours a day, then the fascia becomes short and tight.  So when we try to stretch the muscles, they never give because we are not stretching or releasing the fascia too.  So crunching away at the palms  will help to break that fascia up and aid hand stretching- otherwise we will develop hands like ancient old crones.  If your palms felt good, then try rolling the arch of your foot over a tennis ball.  For the huge majority, this is very painful because, again, the fascia of the foot is tight.  It gets tight, in this case, because the shoes we wear are stiff in the middle, where the arch of the foot is, so the foot cannot bend, flex and rotate properly when we walk which, as time goes by, means the fascia never gets stretched, so becomes tight.

So if we have tight hip flexors1 and/or tight hamstrings that are refusing to lengthen no matter what we do to stretch them, the answer lies in the fascia and it is worth finding a massage therapist that can release this fascia.  Probably all very experienced massage therapists have ways of doing this. But specific techniques include Rolfing and ART.

Finally, the major problem with fascia is that although it covers individual muscles, it is interconnected, so tight fascia in the sole of the foot affects the whole body, all the way to the crown of the head.  Hence why it is quite possible that a headache can be relieved by rolling the arch of the foot over a tennis ball. And, conversely, releasing the fascia around the jaw can release the tension in the legs.  I have both experienced this and witnessed it – it feels bizarre,  but its true.  After all, we have but one body and all parts are interconnected.

 

  1. Hip flexors are the muscles that lift the knees, the hamstrings run down the back of the thighs and lift our heels. []

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