Feeling achy all over or having some muscle tightness? The cause could be something you've never heard of: fascia. It's the thin layer of connective tissue that surrounds your muscles, providing them support and structure. Your muscles may be strong, but the fascia keeps them safe and in place to complete your everyday movements.
Think of your body like an orange. If you liken the outer rind to your skin and the orange pulp to your muscles, then the clear membrane around the pulp is akin to your fascia.
Although this connective tissue certainly isn't as glamorous as strong, toned muscles (nor as often talked about), the fascia's role is just as essential as the muscle's — and that means its health should not be ignored.
4 Important Functions of Your Fascia
Here's a look at why your fascia is vital to your overall health and how you can keep it in tip-top shape.
1. Fascia keeps you feeling young.
Stiff joints, aching shoulders and tight muscles seem to go hand in hand with the aging process. It doesn't have to be that way, though. With healthy fascia, you don't feel those creaks and groans of your body quite as much.
It helps everything inside your body work the way it's supposed to, just without all the pain or stiffness. This means that you'll feel more energized and able to continue all the activities you did when you were younger, whether that's hiking, playing with the kids or grandkids, enjoying a game of pickup basketball or dancing the night away.
2. It protects your muscles and organs.
It's only just recently that scientists have begun to study the fascia, so it's still not widely understood. Fascia wraps around each muscle and organ, separating them and letting the parts slide easily as you move your body.
"Fascia is the head to toe, arm to arm, inside to out connective tissue system that surrounds and penetrates every nook and cranny of our bodies," says fascia expert Ashley Black, author of "The Cellulite Myth: It's Not Fat, It's Fascia."
3. Your fascia helps you maintain your posture.
You're born with good posture, and it's the strong fascia surrounding your muscles that supports your posture from the very beginning.
As the years go on, though, your posture starts to slide. When that becomes a habit — like when you're hunched over a desk or squeezed into a car for a long time — your fascia evolves to support the new position of your muscles. In the end, the bad posture becomes the regular posture, thanks to the fascia's support.
4. Fascia transmits pain signals.
Like any other tissue, fascia contains sensory and pain receptors. When it's not in the best shape, you'll feel the effect, says Sepi Aeen, physical therapist and founder of From the Heart Physical Therapy in Reseda, California. "Imagine wearing clothing that is two to three sizes too small," he says.
However, you might not even realize that the fascia is causing an issue because it's so infrequently discussed. If you suffer from tightness and overall soreness that can't be pinpointed to one muscle, it might be an unhealthy fascia. Those who feel pain and dysfunction, says Aeen, might respond to traditional pain-management techniques because no one is addressing their "fascial restrictions."
How to Keep Your Fascia Healthy
When your fascia is in tip-top shape, it does all these wonderful things for your body. "But when the fascia system is disrupted, it quite literally impacts almost every other system of the body," Black says.
When it's under chronic stress, the fascia fibers thicken in an attempt to protect the muscle below. And when it gets injured (officially known as a fascial adhesion), it's hard, but not impossible, to get it back into good standing.
"The fascia is meant to protect the body from additional injury by 'locking it down.' But over time the fascia can remain restricted, adhesed or distorted and then can become an issue," Black says. "It's important to restore the fascia after suffering an injury by smoothing it out, then adjusting for proper alignment and retraining the entire body to not 'work around' the original injury."
In its very worst state, says fascia expert Ashley Black, fascia can cause nerve issues, feel like an injury or even pull bones out of alignment. So here are seven ways to keep your fascia healthy:
1. Stay hydrated.
The fascia is like a sponge: When it's dry, it's stiff and hard to move. When it's doused with water, it twists, turns and bends with ease. If you don't drink enough water, the brittle fascia is more likely to suffer from an injury because its mobility and resilience has been impacted.
So add this to the list of reasons why you should drink more water. Aim for at least 1.6 liters a day if you're a woman and two liters if you're a man. This helps the tissue stay lubricated, allowing the muscles to glide easily past each other.
2. Get moving.
"Lack of movement can create restrictions and adhesions in fascia, leading to stiffness, soreness and inefficient movement patterns," says neuromuscular therapist Rebecca Millhouse. So the more time you spend as a couch potato, the unhealthier your fascia will become. It's a matter of exercising regularly and stretching often.
Listen to good, old-fashioned advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to accomplish this: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise and at least two 20-minute strength-training sessions per week.
3. Keep it bouncy.
Healthy fascia has good elasticity, so it can move, stretch and rebound. Work on improving your fascia's elasticity with an easy exercise — elastic jumps. You can integrate these jumps into your regular workout by adding a little oomph to moves like high knees and butt kicks.
Land softly as you put a little extra spring in your step. Enjoying some bouncy dancing improves fascia elasticity too, as you jump forward, backward and on one foot to the music. When doing these movements, remember the key words here are "springy" and "elastic." You don't want this workout to be jerky or include abrupt changes of direction, which can do more harm than good.
4. Mix up your workouts.
If you're a runner or avid CrossFitter who doesn't often take a break from workouts or engage in cross-training, you could be harming your fascia. "Problems with fascia commonly occur with repetitive motions," says Stephen Szaro, chiropractor and soft tissue specialist at Physio Logic NYC.
Whether you're a cyclist, a runner or do another type of repetitive sport, incorporate strength training at least two times a week. Consider adding a day of another type of cardio, such as swimming or a few games of tennis.
5. Stretch regularly.
After a good night's rest, you wake up and need to stretch out those stiff muscles. The reason for this? Parts of your fascia are sticking together like chewed bubble gum. As you wake up, release the stickiness by slowly stretching your arms and legs and doing a few quick rolls from side to side. Bring yourself to the edge of the bed and flex and release your feet to get the fascia moving in your ankles and calves.
Or try a new form of therapy, known as fascial stretching therapy, which aims to relax the muscles and the fascia at the same time by manipulating the joints. It's an assisted stretching program, meaning your therapist works with you to stretch the fascia and muscles using stabilization straps on a table. Take note: Fascial stretching therapy is different than myofascial release (see below).
6. Roll it out.
Like stretching, foam rolling helps smooth out any kinks or adhesions in the fascia. If you're unfamiliar with foam rollers, think of it as a wider, stiffer pool noodle. You lie on it, placing the roller where you feel pain or stiffness, and let gravity help you push down as you roll along the floor. When you hit a particularly sore spot, stop for about 15 to 20 seconds to see if the pain will dissipate.
Foam rolling can hurt, but you shouldn't speed through it. Take your time when rolling, taking deep breaths and relaxing into the roller. Don't spend too long on a painful point — 20 seconds should be the max — or you risk irritating the tender spot even further.
7. Visit a myofascial specialist.
If you can't seem to fix your fascia's issues on your own, it's time to head to a professional. They aren't simply masseuses — though a good massage can work wonders on a suffering fascia, and massage therapists can be trained in myofascial release techniques.
In a typical session, the specialist applies gentle pressure or a low-load stretch to the affected area, releasing tightness and, ideally, reducing pain. Keep in mind that there's no official certification for a myofascial specialist, says Black, so do some research on your chosen provider. "Experienced and knowledgeable fascial specialists are rare, but if you can find one, you can have a life-changing experience," she says.
What Do YOU Think?
Before this, had you ever heard of the forgotten body part called the fascia? If not, you're probably realizing all the ways unhealthy fascia has impacted your life. If you have any surefire ways to keep your fascia in the best possible shape, tell us in the comments below!
- Sepi Aeen, MPT, From The Heart Physical Therapy
- Ashley Black, author, “The Cellulite Myth: It’s Not, It’s Fascia”
- Rebecca Millhouse, CMT, NMT, Los Angeles Chronic Pain Treatment Center
- Stephen Szaro, DC, Chiropractor and Soft Tissue Specialist, Physio Logic NYC
- PTontheNet: The Functional Role of Fascia in Posture and Movement
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity