Fascia: a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs. – Marieb, E. & Hoehn, K. (2007). Human anatomy & physiology
When most of us have aches and pains, we usually associate them with muscles, bones and other “easiest” areas of the body – and, in some cases, this is true. For example, if we stand up and feel pain a slight pain in our knee, we instinctively know it’s probably an aching muscle or ligament.
But not all pain is this caused by movement or is sudden in its onset. Pain, in literally every area of the body, can be triggered by seemingly nothing at all. Pains of this variety leave us scratching our collective heads. “Is a trip to the doctor in order?” we begin to wonder.
Sometimes, the doctors won’t know. Well, maybe one…
The Single Body Part That Causes Most Pain (And How To Fix It)
Dr. Mary Ann Wilmarth, a world-renown physical therapist and former head of physical therapy (PT) at Harvard University Health Services, believes many aches and pains are due to fascia (“fash-ya”) complications.
Yeah, we asked that question too. If you’re not a doctor of Orthopedic Medicine (D.O.) or a licensed massage therapist, chances are you’ve never heard of the fascia.
Despite our lack of knowledge, fascia is everywhere in the body. Comprised of highly-concentrated protein fibers, fascia tissue is intricately connected; interwoven and meshed into our bones, muscles, and organs.
According to Dr. Wilmarth, medical professionals and other experts in human physiology have been fascinated with this “mystery tissue” for many years, even decades. However, it wasn’t until around 2007 – at an “international fascia research conference” at Harvard – that these professionals understood the importance of fascia. [Since then, numerous fascia conferences and other related events have are held at multiple venues, including Harvard Medical School.]
Fascia and pain
As mentioned, fascia is an intricate network of connective tissue. To comprehend how this network of fasciae impacts important physiological functions, we must understand its makeup, including a basic understanding of sensory neurons.
Sensory neurons are defined by WebMD as “a nerve cell…(that sends) information from your brain to the rest of your body…from your senses (for example, touch or hearing) to your brain.
This includes, of course, pain receptors (i.e. nociceptors.)
Now consider that we have up to six times as many sensory neurons in our fasciae than in any other tissue of the body. This inordinately complex system allows communication between the brain and other areas of the body, including muscles.
The urge to stand up and stretch is a byproduct of fascia communication. The simple act of arching your back to relieve the mildest amount of tension is the result of fascia communication. You get the point.
Fascia health is critical to our limberness and range of movement. When they’re out of balance, neural signals are suppressed, or the brain interprets this malfunction as pain.
Here’s what you can do…
We’ll discuss a few fascia-related aches and pains you may experience, along with how to fix them.
Post-wake muscle stiffness/cramping
Upon waking up, it’s common for the muscles to feel a bit cramped and stiff. To relieve this feeling, (1) slowly stretch out both arms and legs and (2) rotate (“roll”) your body from side to side, (3) sit on the edge of the bed, and flex out and point your feet.
Just as fascia can get tight without sufficient movement, its binding can be overdone. This is usually the result of repetitive and strenuous motion. To fix this, purchase a high-quality foam roller and learn how to use it. Learning how to use tennis balls to massage fascial layers can also help. Other products also exist (found via a simple ‘Google’ search) can relieve pain caused by fascia.
Preventing fascia injury
Okay, so maybe we’re going the opposite direction here…but anyways. Correctly executed stretches are a great way to loosen up our extremities. They’re also terrific for unwinding any tight fascia prior to exercise. Fitness experts and others also recommend adding a brisk walk or a slow, in-place jog to our pre-workout routine to loosen our fascia.
This “fix” is more of a simple preventative measure. Muscles and tissues can become “tense” without adequate hydration, including our fascia tissue. The simplest fix here is to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Also, make sure that you’re standing up, stretching, going for a quick walk, etc. to keep those fasciae from over-binding.
See the right professional
As we are all well-aware, our body is extraordinarily complicated. The densely interconnected nature of fascia makes some aches, pains, and discomforts difficult to remedy. Massage therapists, physical therapists and D.O’s are adept at finding the problem’s origin and using the appropriate therapeutic method(s) for pain relief.