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Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Fascinating Fascial System

(I just found this article I wrote back in 2021 in my drafts folder - I have updated it where appropriate)....

Touch has a rest and digest impact on our brain and the immune system. But what we are actually touching?

The obvious answer is skin. But, if we then view the body in layers, the layer underneath the skin is the superficial fascia layer, a fibrous collagen 3D network where we hold adipose (fat) tissue. And, as we all know, beneath that are muscles, ligaments, tendons, organs, tubes, neurons and bones etc.

Can we influence the deeper layers by touching and moving the skin?

Fascia is everywhere in the body, not just a superficial layer. It literally coats the surface of everything in the body like the finest membranous clingfilm. Each layer and the connections of it are intrinsically linked to everything around it like a 3D version of a spiders web.

Fascia research is late to the party when it comes to studies of the body. To put this into perspective. Fascia has been coating everything in the body since humankind began, but it was only in 2007 the first ever World conference on Fascia took place. That was only 16 years ago in Boston. I find it incredible, when you think the discovery of in intricate specifics of DNA in the cell nucleus was discovered over 70 years ago.

Fascia has been discarded and viewed as an unimportant substance to cut through to get to somewhere else.

Interestingly, the pioneering world leaders of fascia research, Robert Schleip for one, have come from the world of non-medical hands-on therapies.

Everything in the body has purpose.

Recent research shared at the online (covid restricted) 2020 British Fascia Symposium, revealed fascia contains over 250 million sensory receptors.

That was BIG news. To put this finding into perspective, eyes have in the region of 120 million and, prior to the discovery of neurons in fascia, it was considered the skin had the most with 200 million. (I have no idea how they count them!) This suggests it is a part of a communication system of the internal status of the body.

Fascia shows it has contractile capability. It's a tensegral structure of flexible triangles and 4-sided polygons that get wider in dimension when stretched and narrower when contracted. This is the opposite to a muscle which thickens in contraction as the fibres slide towards each other (think showing off your biceps!).

Another role of Fascia is it acts as a lubricant between one surface and another allowing for smooth movement of one surface against another.

In 2007, I was fortunate to be part of a team of very curious, manual therapists who got together to engage in a "first" in the UK. Under the incredible leadership of Gil Hedley we took part in the dissection of 4 cadavers at St Georges Hospital in London. Gil's method of dissection required the need for the cadaver to be (without making this article too gruesome and for want of a better word) 'fresh'. The tissue was soft and joints were moveable. The female cadaver I was working on had been aged 73 and living 2 weeks previously. She had selflessly, at the end of her life, donated her body for research.

The difference to normal anatomy classes where the cadaver is cut into to study the internals, we dissected the cadaver in layers, studying each layer as we went. We were in awe of how we couldn't separate muscles without cutting them out of the fascia. In Gunter Von Hagan's Body World exhibitions he has removed all signs of fascia in his stunning work of the human form - he is thinking art but it is not true to the human life-form.

Now-a-days anatomists like Jihan Adem and Gary Carter and others do these dissection studies in much finer detail showing fascia as a matrix that connects everything within us. Watch this fascinating youtube film of the making of FR:IER. She is the first 3D fascia model ( Every layer seems to transverse the next so there are no layers. This is mind blowing in itself as it makes you truly see the body as a whole, rather than a structure made up of bits and pieces. Although it is factually correct to state we are made of bits and pieces in the way of organs, bones and muscles etc. but add fascia to the picture and we are one. Complete. Integrated. Non divisible.

The study of Embryology helps explain this fascial connection. The embryo develops through the dividing of cells and forming the network that surrounds and connects the diaphragm, heart, organs, tubes, nerves, soft tissue, bones etc. Ana Barretxeguren, of Evolve Movement Education, gives an excellent tutorial on this subject.

One new term, coined in 2020 to describe this new view of the whole body and connected movement, was "Ensomatosy" created by Linus Johannson. Johannson is a Swedish physio and movement integration specialist and co-founder of my all-time-favourite fascia exercise Soma Move™. His approach, along with many others, is now challenging the teaching of the old paradigm of anatomy, which is based on the outdated knowledge from hundreds of years ago. Our muscles have been defined with tendinous origins and insertions, but only by how they've been cut from the fascial encasings. When left in the fascial wraps one muscle becomes the next to become the next. It is almost as though we have one muscle with 600+ pockets. (2023 EDIT: Ensomatosy. Unsuccessful in becoming a new buzz word, as I've not heard it used since 2020).

So when we touch and move skin that is intrinsically connected to the fascia matrix we are going much deeper than the surface.

Research results show the hormones serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin are being released through gentle pressured touch, with a force of sliding rather than pushing, triggering deep relaxation and calmness, in the guise of the parasympathetic response (rest and digest). Add to this the results from fascia research and maybe the issue with labeled illnesses with no pathology lies within the fascia matrix. It's my belief that soft tissue treatments and exercise that gently move/slide fascia in all directions, is the way forward to helping people who are living with these un-diagnosed pains find recovery.

The research into fascia is ongoing and much can be found at the Fascia Hub. There is much more information than I can report on here (or even understand!).

Maybe it's time for other modalities developed over 100 years ago, including medicine, to adjust to a new paradigm. One that addresses the body as a whole and realises the soft tissue is as responsible for, if not more so than, the hard tissue for the stability, flexibility and mobility of the human form moving through the gravitational pull we call life on earth.


Jihan Adem, Gary Cater:

The Fascia HUB:

Dr Robert Schleip:

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