Health

The Most Important Body Part You Didn't Know You Had

Published On 03/16/2016 Published On 03/16/2016
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You've got a lot of important body parts. Your heart, for instance -- pretty important. Likewise, your brain. And it would be rough to go through life without skin.

But there's another body part that’s rarely discussed that plays a critical role in every movement you make. In fact, it connects everything inside of you, holding you together and helping you sense where your body is in space.

It’s called the fascia. Haven’t heard of it? You're not alone.

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What is fascia?

Basically speaking, fascia is a web of fibrous connective tissue, mostly collagen, that's EVERYWHERE in your body. It wraps your organs, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, offering a sheath that enables body parts to move individually or as groups. Most importantly, it’s all connected.

One of the best analogies I’ve heard compares fascia to citrus. If you peel an orange, you have a single piece of fruit covered in “fruit fascia” (my term) that holds the orange together in a sphere; you can separate an individual slice, which in turn maintains its own shape thanks to the thin tissue you might think of as "slice fascia." Then, if you open up a slice, the juice is packaged into its own individual "pod of fascia." The result is a web of orangey goodness that gives the fruit its shape and function.
 

Fascia is the unsung hero of the human body

Danielle Girdano, a certified personal trainer and self-proclaimed “science geek,” makes no bones about it: “Fascia is the unsung hero of the human body -- it keeps everything in place! It keeps muscles in place and also lets them move independently. It’s the lubrication necessary for muscles to slide or move beside one another.”

More than that, it’s a fluid structure. When properly hydrated and healthy, it bends, twists, and moves, effectively making your body’s actions seamless and easy. There are no “hitches” or “cricks” that hinder normal movement patterns.

Girdano suggests thinking of fascia as a piece of kale (weird food analogies here, but they work). “A hydrated piece of kale can bend or twist and move without much issue. If, however, you dehydrate that same piece of kale, turning it into a kale chip, it can’t bend, twist, or move without breaking. The fascia tissue works the same way. When healthy, it allows free movement, but when unhealthy, it can become injured, leading to restricted movement and pain.”

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Your fascia can stick together if you're not careful

Because fascia is a fluid structure, hydration is key to maintaining its health, but drinking tons of water isn’t necessarily the solution. While water intake definitely helps maintain healthy fascia, movement plays a significant role.

If you work at a desk eight hours a day (or if you suffer an injury that keeps you immobile), your fascia runs the risk of binding together and losing its fluidity. When this happens, you can drink all the water in the world, but it won’t be able to make it to the damaged tissue.

As Girdano explains, "When the tissue is dormant or inactive, it actually binds together, drastically affecting flexibility. When this happens, the muscles can’t move smoothly and become limited in their range of motion. If movement and stretching of fascia is avoided for long periods of time, the tissue can 'seize up,' causing loss of movement and great discomfort where tissue has binded together." If you’ve ever experienced a knot in your back or you’ve felt an area of extreme tightness in any of your muscles, you know what this feels like -- it’s your fascia freaking out.

The worst part is that this feeling won’t go away on its own. If you don't try to correct it, the problem can become worse, leading to muscle imbalances, loss of flexibility, chronic pain, and limited range of motion. As much you may like to claim, "I’m just getting older," you don’t have to stand by and wait for pain and discomfort to overtake your body.

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Taking care of your fascia is actually pretty straightforward

There's some good news here! You can maintain the health of your fascia by working to "unbind" or "unstick" the tissue.

Dr. Mark Tanneberg, a sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Phoenix says, "Taking care of muscle fascia is pretty simple, to be honest. Foam rolling is the best thing you can [do]."

But he points out you shouldn’t just grab a foam roller and roll back and forth ad nauseum hoping for results. "The key with foam rolling is to roll on a muscle group until you feel a tender spot (a bit like a bruise), then hold constant pressure on that spot. Holding the pressure will break up the tension and adhesions within the fascia. This helps decrease pain and increase range of motion."

Just be warned: it hurts. Sometimes a lot, particularly if you're new to the practice or have significant tightness.

It’s also incredibly important to increase your range of motion and regularly take your body through full-body, functional movement patterns. Deep squats and push-ups are examples of exercises you can incorporate into your workouts to work on range of motion through the hips and shoulders, but yoga is one of the best ways to stretch and hydrate fascia as you work on flexibility.

Dr. Tanneberg also notes, “There is a technique called active release rechnique, ART, where the provider, usually a chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist, holds pressure on a trigger point (adhesion) and has the patient go through an active range of motion. This breaks up the adhesions much quicker by adding motion into the therapy.”

If you have limited range of motion due to an injury or sedentary behavior, you might want to work with an ART or rolfing therapist to help speed up the process.

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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who would marry her foam roller if it were legal in Texas. How much do you love your foam roller? Share on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty

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