Just Beneath Your Skin
It’s the time of year when we shake off the lethargy of winter, strap on our sneakers and go outside. We do long walks, start back to running, maybe play ball again. (And this year, since it’s warm so soon, we’re getting started even earlier than usual!).
Unfortunately, especially for those of us of a certain age, we often get injured in our enthusiasm. We think it’s sore muscles, but often it’s something else—tight fascia. What the heck is fascia, you say? It’s the stretchy, mesh-like tissue that weaves through and around our muscles, supports our organs, and acts like “shrink wrap” for our body. In the meat we eat, it’s the tough white stuff that you usually trim away.
Fascia connects literally all the different parts of us; muscle to bone, muscle to muscle, interconnecting organs and ligaments and tendons. Pulling on one section can affect what happens in another section. Fascia also has many, many more nerve endings in it than are in muscle; much of what we call ‘muscle pain’ is actually fascial pain.
The fascia tends to run in major bands in specific parts of the body, connecting body parts we might not think are related. That’s why, for instance, shoulder pain might actually be caused by an ankle issue. The entire system needs to be evaluated together. (Of note is that the fascia is where acupuncture meridians run, which also explains the interconnection of stuff we wouldn’t automatically think of together). Fascia changes with time and adapts to our lifestyle, exercise and pattern of injuries. For instance, an artist who works on large canvases and murals will develop thicker, tighter fascia in the chest and shoulders to support long hours of raised arms. A rower will do so across the back and shoulders to support the rowing motion. Someone who sits all day might find that hip fascia tightens while belly fascia becomes loose. Even small patches of fascia can thicken to support areas of injury. These thicker areas can mean that what should move independently can’t, leading to pain and soreness.
So how do we avoid fascial tightness and pain? If you’re stretching muscle, you’re ahead of the game, as that will help. However, finding and loosening tight areas requires direct work, such as Osteopathic Manipulation, shiatsu massage or appropriate deep work by a massage therapist. Some physical therapists are also trained in this work. Then, once the tightness is worked out, specific exercises can avoid recurrence. (A point: many of the exercises suggested for fascial stretching and strengthening look a lot like good yoga asanas to me!)
Ever wondered about the bounciness of kids? Miss that for yourself? Well, kids still have stretchy, bouncy fascia….which many of us have lost. Good news is that it’s something we can reclaim. At MIB, there are several practitioners who would be appropriate to consult: Tom Sabalaske, DO, Laurie Van Valkenburgh, CMT / shiatsu and Elizabeth Kinloch, CMT. (For the record, they’ve all worked on me and have been tremendously helpful!).
If this topic interests you and you’d like to see some examples of appropriate stretches, please see this article from Experience Life magazine, which was the inspiration for this post: http://experiencelife.com/article/the-web-of-life/. And please be careful in your enthusiasm to enjoy the great weather!