The myofascial system, which looks like a tight mesh spider suit that covers the entire body, is a pervasive tissue system in the body composed of collagen and elastin fibers that support and provide elasticity for the entire musculoskeletal system. It is fibrous and strong, yet quite thin. It envelopes and isolates the muscles and organs of the body, and provides the foundation for bone, cartilage, and important components of the circulatory and lymphatic systems. It also remarkably records all physical, emotional, mental, and cognitive activity. Because sensory nerves are found throughout the fascial planes and are stimulated in yoga and massage, this can evoke emotional and energetic release.
The myofascial system is comprised of three layers: superficial, deep, and subserous. The top layer, or superficial layer, may be mixed with varying amounts of fat and connects the skin to the tissue and bone underneath. It is strong, yet flexible, allowing the skin to be deeply anchored, yet elastic. The next layer, the deep fascia layer, is much stronger and more densely packed. It covers the muscles in connective tissue aggregations which help to keep the muscles divided and protected. The last layer, or subserous layer, is the deepest and lies between the deep layer and the major organs of the body. It is more flexible than deep fascia, and the body leaves space around it so that the organs can move freely.
The myofascial system has many unique qualities that make it truly dynamic. The fascia is surrounded by a gel-like bath called ground substance. It has the unique ability to go from gel to liquid form in response to pressure, heat, or stretch. This can mean the difference of you feeling free and mobile or stiff and rigid like concrete. Ground substance can absorb forces when the body moves, or act as a shock absorber when it is in a gelatinous state when it is healthy. When it changes from a liquid to a gel then to a more solid form, the myofascia tightens and it won’t reverse without outside intervention such as massage or other bodywork. Fascia also contains fibroblasts, specialized cells that give it the ability to grow more fascia. These often work overtime along stress lines in the body as a form of reinforcement and protection.
In addition, the fascial tissue also contains smooth muscle cells and proprioceptors, sensory receptors that detect motion or position of the body, embedded within its cellular matrix. This means that fascia can sense stretch and positional change and then contract or relax in response to it, much like muscle. In fact, facial tissue contains nine times as many mechanoreceptors, sensory end organs that respond to mechanical stimuli, than muscle tissue.
There are two main types of fascial proprioceptors: Ruffini and Pacini endings. Ruffini endings decrease muscle tone and inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity in response to stretch or direct pressure. Pacini endings tense the muscles in response to pressure or vibration, providing joint stability throughout the body.
Unfortunately, the features that make the myofascial system so dynamic, also can lead to deformity, causing bodily pain over time. Fascial tissue exposed to excessive stress and strain can become dense and knotted, due to the responses of its ground substance and fibroblasts. The areas of increased tension are called adhesions, which form around nerves and causing muscles to lose independent movement, fatiguing the synergist muscles.
Trigger points can also be formed in the myofascia and muscles. Trigger points, a common cause of musculoskeletal pain, are extremely sore and tender spots that feel like a taught band in the muscle. They form in areas that have been under heavy stress, and therefore constantly contract, limiting the flow of blood and nutrients and removal of waste, irritating the area even further. This sends pain signals to the brain, ordering the muscle to rest, which shortens and tightens the muscle, sending the body into a vicious cycle of pain.
To ensure a healthy myofascial system, drinking plenty of water, strength training, stress reduction and treatments such as massage, acupuncture, and yoga are highly recommended. Both massage and yoga stimulate the nerves and mobilize fluids within the myofascial and organ planes. This propels toxins to the one-way valve system, sending them to the lymph nodes and organs that facilitate their removal.
Massage can facilitate myofascial release, a technique where gentle, sustained pressure is used on the soft tissue while traction is applied to the fascia. This results in the softening and lengthening of the fascia and breaking down of scar tissue and adhesions between skin, muscle, and bones. Although the assistance of a professional massage therapist or body worker is recommended, one can work on myofascial release through self-massage. This can be done with the aid of a foam roller, pain ball, or “the stick”, a twenty-four inch flexible plastic baton outfitted with a series of rollers that can access hard-to-reach places.
Lastly, finding ways to relax will help ensure a healthy myofascial system. Yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature will help ease tension in the body, preventing adhesions and trigger points from forming.
Written By: Lauren Leduc