We Have Much to Learn from Current Fascia Research
Originally published in Massage Today, July, 2015, Vol. 15, Issue 07
Fascia is fashionable. Over the past few years, you may have noticed the increase in conferences, congresses, symposia, workshops, online courses, books and articles that contain the word fascia in their title.
Fascia was, for many years, seen as a sort of second-class tissue, a form of supportive wrapping, a nuisance during dissection, where it obscured the views of pretty muscles and joints. Fascia’s increased visibility, due largely to the series of International Fascia Research Congresses, has attracted publication of a huge number of serious basic science research papers, as well as an avalanche of clinically related, fascia-related articles. These articles range from a focus on the fascial influences of foam-rolling, kinesiotaping, connective tissue massage, muscle-energy and other stretching techniques, myofascial release, a variety of exercise models (with plyometrics taking the lead), as well as a range of new trademarked approaches, led by the Italian export Fascial Manipulation.
One of the surprising features resulting from current fascia research (and there is an awful lot of it) is how little our increased understanding of fascia’s functions has changed what manual therapists actually do – or need to do.
Rather, I believe, greater fascial awareness and understanding helps most therapists to do what they already do, more effectively, rather than having to relearn their skills. I have outlined a few examples of this here.
Before looking at examples of how emerging fascial knowledge refines, but doesn’t necessarily change, what we do – it’s important to establish a basic fact: It is impossible to treat fascia directly (short of actual surgery). In fact, all treatment approaches that target the soft tissues of the body, the muscles, ligaments, tendons and of course the joint-related tissues must involve fascial structures. The key message here is that it is not possible to “treat,” – for example, a muscle (in any way whatever), without fascia being a feature of the process.
This elegantly phrased quote, from a research article by Weppler & Magnusson (2010), summarizes this point: “Skeletal muscles comprise contractile tissue intricately woven together by fibrous connective tissue that gradually blends into tendons…made of fibrous connective tissue [that] attach the muscle to bone. Although contractile tissue and tendons are sometimes evaluated separately for research purposes, they cannot be separated during routine clinical testing and stretching procedures, nor during functional activity,” nor, of course, during manual treatment.
Five Clinically Relevant Examples
Note: This is not a definitive list. I have selected some key examples, there are many others!
Load transfer via fascia. Load-transfer research demonstrates how force is transmitted from one part of the body to another via fascial connections (described by some as “chains” and others or “trains”). For example, Carvalhais and colleagues (2013) demonstrated how contraction of latissimus dorsi – during adduction of the shoulder – produces external rotation of the contralateral hip via the superficial layer of the thoracolumbar fascia; while Stecco et al., (2013) showed how gluteus maximus contractions directly influence the knee via the iliotibial band. Potentially, therefore left-knee dysfunction could involve right latissimus dorsi behavior. Awareness of such links would not necessarily alter your treatment methods, but might well cause you to look at a wider set of possibilities when seeking causes of knee pain.
Fascia’s sliding and gliding fascial functions. The different layers of the body – for example, between muscles or separating dense fascial structures from muscle or from other fascial layers – contain viscous loose connective tissues that allow a gliding, sliding function, protecting sensitive neural structures, as well as facilitating pain-free, efficient movement and force transmission, as described above. Gliding function may be lost because of trauma, inflammation or aging, resulting in fibrosis, thickening, densification. (Pavan et al 2014). Knowledge of the sliding functions of fascial tissues might not change what you do at all, but may help to explain why attention, lightly applied, as in myofascial release, can offer such dramatic benefits.
Mechanotransduction or changing cell behavior: for example, reducing inflammation and speeding healing of damaged tissues. Mechanotransduction describes the many ways in which cells respond to different degrees of load, such as pressure, tension, stretch, friction, etc. Research using important fascial cells (fibroblasts) that are largely responsible for the early stages of healing traumatized tissues, has shown that when these cells have been distressed by many hours of rapid movement, so that they start producing inflammatory chemicals, a brief period (a minute to 90 seconds) during which the cells are “treated” with the equivalent of myofascial release (MFR) or positional release (strain/counterstrain or SCS) – normalizes them. (Standley & Meltzer 2008.)
When MFR methods are applied to fibroblast cells in damaged tissues, a speeding up of the repair process is observed. (Hicks et al 2012). More recently, Cao et al (2015) conducted research on bioengineered tendons that had been artificially injured, to see how different degrees of light load (as in MFR) would effect the healing process. They tested a variety of degrees and durations of light stretching and identified that particular variations. For example, three minutes of stretch using around 6% of stretch, was effective in speeding up repair, while 12% for five minutes slowed it down. These percentages represent the degree of increased length of the tendon induced by stretching.
This remarkable research does not change the way gentle MFR or SCS are applied in manual therapy treatments of injured, painful, irritated, inflamed tissues – but helps explain why stronger degrees of stretch may not be as effective as light load.
Fluid dynamics and pain reduction. Manual methods that use isometric contraction – such as Muscle Energy Techniques (MET) – have the effect of improving fluid movement, particularly involving fascial fibroblast cells. Changes in the hydrostatic pressure in fascial tissues leads to improved drainage, reducing inflammatory chemicals (Langevin et al 2005, Fryer & Fossum 2009).
This is another example of fascial research indicating why (and how) mild stretching methods, particularly those involving isometric contractions, are effective in pain management. The information doesn’t change the treatment methods, but it does clarify our understanding of what’s happening.
Eccentric MET stretch and fibrosis, post-surgery. Remarkable clinical work in India, by orthopedic surgeons working in rehabilitation of individuals who have had recent hip or knee replacement surgery, or surgical repair of fractures, has demonstrated the value of slowly applied isotonic-eccentric stretching in such cases, thus reducing fibrosis and speeding recovery compared with traditional passive stretching methods. These MET variations have been successfully used for many years, by osteopaths and manual therapists in treatment of musculoskeletal dysfunction and have now been scientifically validated. Although this clinical research adds a wider range of application for MET, it does not change the way many of us already use this valuable method (Parmar, et al 2011).
The Bottom Line
Current fascia research is informing us, refining rather than revolutionizing what we do. Understanding the mechanisms of what we do in practice can help in the choice of what methods are best for particular clinical settings – how to best apply the multiple tools that manual therapists have for the optimal benefit of patients.
You may have noticed that the examples I have given in this article largely focused on biomechanical (and fluid related) effects of manual treatment. Apart from these there are, of course, important neurophysiological effects but that’s a whole other story for another time.
- Cao T et al 2015 Duration and Magnitude of Myofascial Release in 3Dimensional Bioengineered Tendons: Effects on Wound Healing. JNL. American Osteopathic Association. 115(2):72-82.
- Carvalhais V et al 2013 Myofascial force transmission between the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus muscles: An in vivo experiment. Journal of Biomechanics 46:1003–1007.
- Fryer G Fossum C 2009 Therapeutic Mechanisms Underlying Muscle Energy Approaches. In: Physical Therapy for tension type and cervicogenic headache:. EDS: de las Peñas F et al Jones & Bartlett, Boston.
- Hicks M et al 2012 Mechanical strain applied to human fibroblasts differentially regulates skeletal myoblast differentiation. J. Appl. Physiol.113(3):465-472.
- Langevin H et al 2005 Dynamic fibroblast cytoskeletal response to subcutaneous tissue stretch ex vivo and in vivo. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol 288:C747–C756.
- Pavan PG et al. 2014 Painful connections: densification versus fibrosis of fascia. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 18(8):441.
- Parmar S et al 2011 Effect of isolytic contraction and passive manual stretching on pain and knee range of motion after hip surgery. Hong Kong Physiotherapy Journal 29:25-30.
- Standley P Meltzer K 2008. Effects of Repetitive Motion Strain (RMS) & Counter-Strain (CS), on fibroblast morphology and actin stress fiber architecture. J Bodyw Mov Ther 12(3):201-203.
- Stecco A et al 2013 The anatomical and functional relation between gluteus maximus and fascia lata JBMT 17(4):512-517.
- Weppler CH Magnusson SP 2010 Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation? Physical Therapy 90:438-449.
Article by Leon Chaitow, ND, DO. Originally published here