We all know the head, shoulders, knees and toes song, but do you really know what holds your muscles and organs together? More importantly, why it’s so important to take care of this mystical thing called fascia? As a chiropractor and box owner, I’ve spent a lot of time understanding, treating and preventing injuries associated with fascia overuse, inflammation, and immobility. In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into what fascia is, its function, what I recommend to prevent fascia-based injuries and how I treated these injuries in the past.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is the connective tissue that forms webs or bands beneath the skin to attach, stabilize, enclose and separate muscles and other internal organs. Fascia has the ability to move—it can contract and relax on its own. Fascia is intertwined throughout the body from the foot (plantar fascia) all the way to the eyebrows (cranial fascia), and is one of the biggest sensory organs in the human body. Which is why it’s no surprise that it’s often the main source of referral pain.
When explaining fascia and its connection to muscles, one can compare the anatomy of the body to that of an orange. The juice of an orange is self-contained in compartments that appear to be a matrix of fibers, or in our body’s case, connective tissue. The skin of the orange can be peeled off to show the connective support structures that hold the fluid in. This resembles our bodies’ fascia and is very similar to a dissection in an anatomy lab. In order to access the “juice” –our organs and muscles–large amounts of the white, maze-like fascia have to be removed.
Some people may find it easier to imagine just taking off the skin of the fruit and leaving it to dry for a few days before trying to squeeze it. You’ll probably notice that you get less fluid out of it and a lot less mobility. The same thing happens to your muscles when they are left to dry and not moved around frequently — which is why movement, mobility and hydration are important factors when it comes to keeping fascia healthy.
Fascia Do’s and Don’ts
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – did I get the point across? Muscles and surrounding tissues are made up of 75% water, which means they need to be constantly hydrated to avoid tissue damage. Dehydration can lead to faster muscle fatigue, friction in the joints, muscles and fascia–all of which can severely affect performance.
Tip: Aim to drink 50-75% of your body weight in ounces of water, daily. In addition, be sure to drink at least 8-16 ounces 30 minutes before your workout. Adequate amounts of water will also help speed up recovery times overall.
Make mobility a priority – Get to class early to stretch, mobilize and utilize the movement tools at your facility prior to class. While most boxes have a set warm up, they aren’t designed to address your specific mobility issues. Grab a foam roller, a lacrosse ball and some bands – it’s your time to work out all the kinks in your muscles/fascia.
Don’t forget about proper nutrition and supplements – a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement (fish oil) is your best friend. It helps with a number of bodily functions including a decrease in inflammation, increases in cardiovascular function and promotes healthy energy levels to name a few.
Tip: I use Stronger Faster Healthier’s (SFH.com) SO3+D3 Omega-3 Oil because of its high-quality ingredients and extra dose of vitamin D.
The “No pain, no gain” theory – Mobilizing isn’t always going to feel great but if you are having intense pain, burning, or other weird sensations it is best to stop and seek professional care.
Rolling the IT Band – The IT band is a fibrous tissue, meaning it is made of hard connective tissue and is an extension of the tensor fascia latae muscle that starts at the top of our hip. While rolling this band of fascia you may notice it resembles a gravel road with lots of bumps and turns. This is because the cells that comprise the band are formed that way. There is no elasticity to the IT band at all and by rolling it out you are probably just causing more micro trauma to the tissues under it.
The Fix: Try a dynamic warm-up like a Karaoke or a side lunge to facilitate some motion into the hip joint and surrounding tissues.
Smashing or rolling the Plantar Fascia – Doing these techniques will not make the tissue longer and will cause more pain in the process.
The Fix: Barefoot walking, take a frozen water bottle and gently roll up and down the foot with minimal pressure. Use a softer ball like a tennis ball to roll the surrounding tissue and relieve some of the tension.
Smashing the Psoas (the muscle that sits on our low back and attaches to the hip) – The Psoas can be tight on CrossFitters and other athletes who incorporate weightlifting and HIIT, but getting deep into the stomach and organs with kettlebells and other tools isn’t a good idea–especially when your biggest artery, the Aorta, is hanging out right there. It is best to see a professional to get this released properly.
The Fix: Like other physicians, I use Active Release Techniques® to fully facilitate and release the tension that builds up. Hanging from the pull-up bar for a short period will also help decompress the lumbar spine and release some of the surrounding musculature.