Fascia, the Body’s Shape-Shifter

Our knowledge of fascia is beginning to expand rapidly.  Until recently, it was viewed simply as extra tissue surrounding organs in the body.  It was the “stuff” that surgeons cut through to reach the targeted organs.  Now researchers are realizing there is more significance to the matrix of fascia that pervades our body.

What is Fascia?

Close-up of muscle fascia.

Fascia exists throughout the body as a web of tissue made of collagen, elastin and a gel-like viscous inner substance. It appears to exist in at least three different layers: a superficial layer, a deeper layer beneath the fat cells, and an even deeper layer in the body, called epimysial fascia, that surrounds muscles and organs.  However, all the layers are continuous and interconnected.  The thin layers under the skin ultimately connect with the thicker layers surrounding muscles and bones.  According to the Fascia Nomenclature Committee, “the [fascia] layers are bound to one another in a 3-D matrix that gives the body structure and helps it function in an integrated manner.”

Fascia surrounds every element of the body, the muscles, organs, bones, brain, and nerve cells. It is frequently referred to as our “organ of form.” It holds and supports the body against the pull of gravity.  The most appropriate model of fascia to date is illustrated by 3-D tensegrity.

Tom Myers, from Anatomy Trains explains tensegrity:

A Communication System

Researchers now recognize that the fascia network is one of our richest sensory/communication organs. The surface area of this network is endowed with millions of endomysial sacs and other membranous pockets with a total surface area that by far surpasses that of the skin or any other body tissue.

Fascia is embedded with both the body’s vascular and nervous systems.  Compared to these other systems, however,  communication in the fascia network is faster: at 1,160 km / h vs. the nervous system, which is only 240 km / h .

We can see from the tensegrity model that if one node on the structure is touched, manipulated or stretched, the repercussions are felt throughout the structure almost immediately.  Stress in the hip may be felt in the shoulder.  Fascia allow the body to feel position and to change shape–hence, it can be thought of as allowing the body to shape-shift.

Fascia and Our “Inner Ocean”

The fascia also hold the cells and organs apart, forming a barrier to maintain a fluid extra-cellular matrix (ECM).  This (ECM) is like the inner ocean of our bodies.  All the cells in our body require space around them and this space is filled with an inert fluid that protects, cushions and holds the cells and tissues in place.  The ECM has several substances that allow for cellular repair to take place, but its essential job is to facilitate the smooth action and functioning of the cells, muscles, and organs.

How to Maintain the Fascia

There is currently a lot of debate about how to maintain the fascia.  It is unclear whether fascia needs to be “released” or, if this is even possible.  Massage and stretching relax muscle tissue, but fascia is slow to respond to stretching.

What we do know, is that healthy fascia require two things:

First, adequate hydration to maintain the extra-cellular matrix, as well as the gelatinous core of the fascia tubules. Fascia can become crystallized and stiff without adequate moisture.

And second, daily regular movement through a wide range of motion without extensive stretching.  The enemy of fascia health is extended sitting.  Movement, like that in Tai Chi and Qi Gong, is likely to maintain the health and flexibility of fascia well into old age.


More Reading:

Fascia Facts
Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity
Washington Post: Scientists, doctors say fascia may reveal cures for illnesses
Does Fascia Matter? A detailed critical analysis of the clinical relevance of fascia science and fascia properties

Tai Chi helps preserve cognitive function

Studies over the past two decades show that the brain can grow and make new connections over our lifetime and that exercise can promote this process.

Recent meta-analysis of 20 studies on Tai Chi and cognition indicate that “Tai Chi appears to improve executive function—the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions—in people without any cognitive decline. In those with mild cognitive impairment, tai chi slowed the progression to dementia more than other types of exercise and improved their cognitive function in a comparable fashion to other types of exercise or cognitive training.”

The practice of Tai Chi out performs other forms of intervention such as walking or social interaction in improving cognitive ability and increasing brain volume.

From Harvard Health:  A Sharper Mind: Tai Chi Can Improve Cognitive Function

Image: © kali9 | Gettyimages

Tai Chi Helps Seniors Avoid Dangerous Falls

After a fall, many Seniors feel apprehensive about resuming their normal activities for fear of falling again.  Curtailing normal activities and exercise results in a loss of balance and strength, which only makes a person more vulnerable to another serious fall.

The National Council on Aging recognizes 14 exercise programs that may help people regain their lost balance and reduce the chances of falling again.  One of the most effective is Tai Chi.

  Part of the benefit of many fall prevention programs is the exercise they provide. But not all exercise is equal. In a study of 670 adults age 70 or older who had fallen at least once in the last year, tai chi adapted for fall prevention was more effective than a generic exercise program or a stretching routine. Adults who practiced tai chi 2 hours per week for 6 months were 31% less likely than those in the exercise group to fall again and 58% less likely to fall than those in the stretching group.

According to Peter Harmer, PhD at Willamette University,  “Tai Chi Chuan starts to reactivate the neuromuscular pathways that underpin your ability to control your body as it falls through space. ”

WebMd: Adding Tai Chi Helps Seniors Avoid Dangerous Falls


Thanks to Sue O. for submitting this link!


Tai Chi Helps Build Strength and Prevent Falls

People looking to “get back into” exercise would benefit from starting with Tai Chi.  Practicing Tai Chi for 1 hour, one to three times a week can help strengthen unused muscles, increase body awareness in space, and prevent falls.

In a review “of [the] 507 studies included in the 2015 review, 94.1 percent found positive effects of tai chi. These included 192 studies involving only healthy participants, 142 with the goal of health promotion or preservation and 50 seeking better balance or prevention of falls. ”

From Elizabeth Trout’s comment on Brody’s article:

  The main thing I want to share with you is that everything, EVERYTHiNG I do,
I do better because of Tai Chi. 

The original article appeared in The New York Times:  Using Tai Chi to Build Strength

Thanks to Janet S. for suggesting this link.

Tai Chi Beats Stretching & Aerobic Exercises for Relief from Fibromyalgia Pain

As reported in the New York Times (2010), a clinical trial at Tufts Medical Center and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that after 12 weeks of tai chi, patients with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, did significantly better in measurements of pain, fatigue, physical functioning, sleeplessness and depression than a comparable group given stretching exercises and wellness education. Tai chi patients were also more likely to sustain improvement three months later.

It’s easy to see why Tai Chi helps with this condition. Fibromyalgia sufferers report pain points shown in the image above (from MedicineNet.com). Tai Chi targets those exact areas–the base of the skull, the shoulders, the hips, and knees.

Chenchen Wang from Tufts University, says it’s time to rethink our approach to therapy for Fibromyalgia:

  Despite the well established benefits of aerobic exercise as a core standard treatment for fibromyalgia, patients in our trial had difficulty adhering to the aerobic exercise programme. This may not be surprising—many patients with fibromyalgia find performing and adhering to exercise programs hard. Complaints such as “the floor is too hard,” “I cannot stand this,” “I’m too tired,” or “I’m in too much pain” were common. Despite encouragement by study staff, many participants missed classes, and attendance was lower than in the tai chi group. In contrast, people from the tai chi group continue to call our office looking for opportunities for tai chi training now that the study has ended. What we found suggests that patients may be more likely to enjoy, manage, and continue to practice tai chi, perhaps because it involves gentle, low impact movements with minimal side effects.  

Post submitted by J. J. Rein, Assistant Instructor