Until recently – the last couple of decades – fascia was the thing that surgeons cut through to get to the interesting bits. It’s cast aside to access and assess the state of internal organs, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and tendons. Fascia itself is a thin layer of connective tissue, like a sausage skin, that sits under the skin and hold everything together. It’s everywhere, all through the body.
Superficial fascia sits just under the skin and contains nerve fibres that detect pressure, temperature and movement. There’s also a deeper layer – use-fully called deep fascia – which binds muscle, organs, blood vessels and more. This fascia is rich in fibres that sense position and movement (proprio-ception) and pain.
Fascia and Nerves
Fascia is an important part of our structure. Not something to be ignored to get to the big prizes of muscle and internal organs. Most human fascia contains approximately 250 million nerve endings. Roughly the same as you’ll find in skin. If you suffer from chronic pain the number of these nerve fibres that sense pain grows. From approximately 4% to 15%, which may explain why it’s so hard to treat chronic pain. It’s thought that chronic inflame-mation causes the proliferation of these nerve fibres.
Fascia/Back Pain Connection?
If you go to your doctor with back pain, you’ll more than likely get a diagnosis of “non-specific” lower back pain. This is the majority diagnosis – approximately 85% of lower back pain is diagnosed as non-specific in the UK. Non-specific is a technical term meaning “we’re not quite sure what’s going on”.
The number of nerve fibres can actually increase in chronic pain, making it more painful. Addition-ally, the fascia itself can stiffen by up to 20%, just like a muscle tightening when injured. Initial re-search suggests that the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight mechanism) may trigger inflammation in the fascia, causing it to stiff-en and compound the problem.
Could it be then that fascia is responsible for a large part of the 85% of non-specific lower back pain? Scientifically this can’t be answered yet, but maybe.
Harness the power of fascia
1. Stretch. Stretching can help the local fascia release and help to reduce pain. Initial research also suggests that stretching may have more widespread effects; reducing systemic inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a key component of many modern diseases; cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disease, depression.
2. Meditate. Stress and the ensuing overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system can cause inflammation of fascia and pain. Try to switch off the fight or flight mechanism by joining a yoga or meditation class, find space in your day to just “be”, share problems with close friends. Anything that you find truly relaxing.
3. Therapy. Acupuncture and massage can both help. There is evidence to suggest that many acu-puncture channels or meridians may map the main fascial networks in the body.
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