Visualizing the fascial web
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
I love visualizations and analogies, things that can help me better understand something complex by using something familiar. Fascia, another name for the body's connective tissue, is definitely complex; so as a Myofascial Release therapist, I'm always looking for visualizations that help me better conceptualize and explain the nature of fascia. I've heard and used terms like netting, webbing, structural framework, and others. Each analogy has some value in understanding the nature of fascia. If I use the comparison of a spider web, you can understand how something very thin and weak can come together to create something strong, yet flexible. You could visualize how pulling on one part of the web would create movement that impacts the whole spider web. And you could imagine how damage to one area could affect the strength and integrity of the whole web. Unfortunately, like most analogies, a simple spider web falls a little flat on helping to understand the 3-dimensional nature of the body's fascial system.
Then one day this nice spider came along and wove a beautiful visual for me. Right above the wheelwell of my horse trailer, I have this funnel-shaped web, with the creator hidden deep in it's protective folds. Though each strand of web is inherently thin and weak and incredibly stretchy, yet when tied together in an every-which-way intricacy of connections, the web has structure and mobile strength, and the spider is protected against rain, predators, and wind...even the wind generated by going down the highway at 70 miles per hour!
Just look at this beauty! If you look at the structure on a microscopic level, it is complete chaos! If you look at it as a whole, the chaos has produced something with form and function! So too in our bodies. Microscopically, fascia is complete chaos! Viewed on the whole, it forms pockets to hold everything in our body protectively in it's proper place. From the smallest cell to the biggest organ, everything in our body is supported by fascia! Fascia even forms the spaces where interstitial fluid is allowed to flow, and bathe every cell of our body as an intricate part of cellular health. Look at the spider web above, and imagine it is the fascial web holding protective space for a nerve or blood vessel to freely glide and move in your arm, while not getting crushed or over-stretched by the muscular action going on around it. Or speaking of muscles, visualize this web as the sheath around a single muscle fiber, surrounded by hundreds of other fibers, which are then bunched together by fascia into a muscle bundle, which is then bound with hundreds of other muscle bundles to form a muscle. A muscle isn't even a muscle until it is given structure by the fascia! This muscle ("myo") and fascia complex is where we get the term for the Myofascial system.
Now, imagine this single spider web is interconnected with thousands of other webs, and you start to get an inkling of just how amazingly complex our Myofascial system is in our body! And just as a spider will repair and rebuild his web if it is damaged, so too our fascial system will respond to traumas and chronic stressors to provide the protection that the body needs, at any point in time becoming more dense and supportive at any location of injury or chronic tissue stress. Ideally, the fascia will "release" and remodel once again to more normal density and mobility after recovery from an injury or removal of a stressor. However, in cases of surgery, severe trauma, or when stressors are ongoing, fascial restrictions can be longstanding and have far-reaching effects on the body. Each individual's pattern of fascial restrictions and their influence is as unique as their own life experiences. These fascial restrictions may not be readily addressed by traditional medical or therapeutic interventions due to the difficulty to research and quantify such a complex and non-linear structure. In addition, most practitioners in traditional settings are not allotted sufficient contact time needed to provide such a treatment. Here I will insert a quote from John Barnes (www.myofascialrelease.com), who is an amazing teacher and an authority on myofascial release:
“Trauma, inflammatory responses, and/or surgical procedures create Myofascial restrictions that can produce tensile pressures of approximately 2,000 pounds per square inch on pain sensitive structures that do not show up in many of the standard tests (x-rays, myelograms, CAT scans, electromyography, etc.)...Myofascial Release treats the entire Myofascial mind/body complex eliminating the pressure of the restricted Myofascial system (the straightjacket) that causes the symptoms.
Restoring more normal structure and mobility of fascia requires discovering where the restrictions are, which can only be done by intuitive observation and feel, not by pure logic. Then, the tissues need a light enough approach to avoid causing a protective response, but enough tension and time (minimum of 3-5 minutes) placed into the fascial system to facilitate releases or remodeling changes. Often, results from Myofascial Release may happen within a few visits with lasting effect. Other times it may take a few more sessions to reach the full benefit, as we encounter layer upon layer of fascial tension built on top of or protecting deeper restrictions. Like peeling an onion, each session allows us to reach further into the fascial web, restoring mobility as we go, and eventually allowing us to get to the deeper restrictions and bring much-sought-after relief. Though Myofascial Release can not cure every diagnosis, by maximizing the health and fluidity of your fascial web, it can help maximize the body's self-healing and functional potential!
Well, now you have spider webs and onions on your mind! If you hate both, or visualizations just aren't your thing, that's okay, you'll still love Myofascial Release! I hope I have been able to weave an analogy of fascia that will help you better understand this unique treatment modality that I am so happy to be able to offer!
*For those of you who may be squeamish of spiders but can handle the sight of blood and surgically exposed body tissue, there is an amazing You Tube video called "Strolling Under the Skin" which shows moving fascia in full living color! This is by French hand surgeon, Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, who is a pioneer in researching the nature of fascia in living tissues.