It's all about fascia!
Our body's connective tissue is made up primarily of collagen and elastin, is believed to be made of 80% water (and hence is affected by the body's hydration), can take many different forms of pliability and has a limited blood supply. Ligaments, tendons, retinaculum, cartilage and fascia are all types of connective tissues.
Fascia is a system of abundant connective tissue that intricately encases our body parts and muscle fibres and binds them together. A common analogy for fascia is that it can be thought of as a "sausage casing" for your body's tissues. It surrounds muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments and gives them shape. It also can help with functional movement by reducing friction between structures.
Fascia is almost found everywhere in your body and helps maintain structural integrity, provides support and protection, acts as a shock absorber, provides the pathway for cells to communicate with each other, is the body’s first line of defence against pathogenic agents and infections and after an injury, it creates an environment for tissue repair
Interestingly some recent research has found active contractile cells within fascial tissue itself and the presence of active contractile cells indicates that fascia is able to contract and elongate with some degree of neurological control. Changes in tissue consistency appear to result from neurological activity in these contractile cells and not from a conversion from gel to fluid. Fascia also contains an abundance of specialized sensory receptors called Ruffini endings which respond to forces applied to tissues connected to or adjacent to them. Activation of the Ruffini endings with tangential force techniques appears to cause a neurological response that decreases contractile activity in the fascia itself. Consequently the ‘fascial release’ felt by many practitioners is likely a neurological response of relaxation in the fascia just as it is in muscle tissue.
Superficial fascia is a layer of fatty tissue that connects your skin to the tissue that is directly beneath it and forms a single continuous layer surrounding the whole body. It adheres very strongly to the inside of the skin and also binds very strongly to the deep fascia along it's inner surface. It is thicker in some places than in others and it's thickness is also impacted by body fat and some genetic factors.
It is found just underneath the skin, and stores fat and water and acts as a passageway for lymph, nerve and blood vessels. When the superficial fascia becomes compressed or restricted, those vessels are then compressed and restricted. It also acts as a protective padding to cushion and insulate. The structure is likened to that of a honeycomb consisting of non-densely laid-down collagen. It’s mostly made up of areolar connective tissue, which is a mixture of collagen, elastic and reticular fibres. Superficial fascia also features varying amounts of adipose tissue (fat) and in some cases, fascia can also trap fatty tissue beneath the skin, creating the appearance of cellulite. It plays an important role in the movement of skin. When you actively move/stretch your skin and then release it, the elasticity of the fascia serves to return the skin to the same position. Since it's primarily thought to be made up of water, the body's level of hydration has an impact on it's pliability and elasticity as well.
The deep fascia is a single 3 dimensional structure which envelops every bone, muscle, nerve organ and cell in the body. It connects them all together and holds everything in place, acting as a barrier and filtration system for the various bodily fluids in the different organs and vessels. These can all be adversely affected if the fascia is damaged or in poor condition. Deep fascia too has a high water content and if dehydrated can lead to a build up of toxins which can alter the exchange of chemicals through it.
Deep fascia is rich in mechanoreceptors which send sensory information to the central nervous system. It also contains myofibroblasts which give it the potential to contract at an autonomic level. Together, these two connect through reflex pathways.
These mechanoreceptors are particularly concentrated in the layers surrounding the muscle (epimysium). It's possible that when we talk about muscle tone, rather than it being the muscle fibres themselves contracting it could be caused by an autonomic fascial contraction.
Fascia holds the muscle together and keeps it in the correct place and also separates the muscles so they can work independently of each other. The fascia provides a lubricated surface so that the muscles can move smoothly against each other. The connective tissue, or fascia, that surrounds the entire muscle group is called the epimysium; the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle fibre bundles is called the perimysium; and the connective tissue that surrounds the individual muscle fibres is called the endomysium. Fascia surrounds and infiltrates the entire muscle from outer to inner.
The fascia provides a supportive and movable wrapping for nerves and blood vessels as they pass through and between muscles. Fascial tissues are frequently innervated by sensory nerve endings. Healthy fascia helps aid muscle strength and function, so if the fascia is in poor condition, dehydrated or injured then this has a significant affect on muscle function and their performance. Either through injury or lifestyle, when there is a prolonged period of inactivity with lack of movement, tiny fibrous bonds start to form, binding the fascia together with adjacent tissues.
Sometimes we may think that our muscle is short and tight but in fact it is the fascia, especially in chronic situations. Once these fibrous bonds become thick after a long period of inactivity, say after an injury, they are very hard to stretch with the same stretches you would use for muscles. This is why manual techniques like massage, particularly myofascial release or connective tissue massage (although all massage works into the fascia to some extent) work really well to release the fascia ready for remedial exercises to aid long term improvements. Also if someone is unable to move due to illness or injury for many weeks or months, introducing movement of the fascia manually is a great way to keep it from binding together.
The significance of the fascial network (connective tissue) on postural alignment
Optimal performance and posture is often attributed primarily to the musculoskeletal system, but more evidence is being obtained on the significance of the fascial network and how this system is vital in maintaining control of both posture and movement.
The fascial network encompasses all connective tissues of the body, from cartilage, bones, tendons and ligaments, to adipose, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and joint capsules.
This fascial network integrates into every part of the entire body and so creates continuous myofascial linkages that specifically connect regions of the body. These are responsible for controlling body position, maintaining posture and allowing smooth movement. These linkages can also help to dampen force throughout the body and transfer force from the lower extremities to the trunk and upper extremities. The tensegrity of the fascial network helps to enable maintenance of posture and coordinated movement.
There are distinct differences between the superficial and deep fascia systems. The integration of muscles and joints within the Deep Myofascial System (DMS) enables the ability to exert specific control over joint position and movement. An imbalance between the DMS and the Superficial Myofascial System (SMS) allows an increased possibility for developing compensatory postural or movement strategies. Inhibition of the DMS causes a person to adopt a compensatory strategy and increases activity of the SMS. This imbalance of the two systems alters joint alignment, increases tone of muscle, and directly contributes to postural issues. Restoring balance of these two systems will improve function and control of movement.