This article is not about myofascial release technique. Neither is it about sports massage. It is about fascia and how massaging it and tight muscles can help you to recover from injury, prevent injury and keep your soft tissues in peak performance for your sporting life.
What Exactly is Fascia?
Let’s imagine raw chicken. Notice the smattering of fat in small, yellowish clumps. You cannot simply pluck the fat off (you need to cut it) because it is attached to a slimy, see-through film called fascia. In fact, the entire chicken breast is sheathed with fascia. It lies between the meat and the skin of the chicken. Humans have fascia, too. It surrounds all of your muscle tissue and organs and is integral to many functions related to structure and transport. Fascia is your friend but it can cause problems when it is injured and creates adhesions.
Soft-Tissue Injury and Scar Tissue
When you suffer an injury or have surgery, your body produces scar tissue - a fibrous material similar to the chicken fat example but firmer. Sometimes that collagen matrix lays down flat and geometrically perfect. But sometimes it lays down haphazardly and forms a little more of itself than necessary and that can cause adhesions with other tissues. When this tissue is in a jumbled formation it can pull on surrounding fascia. The fascia is connected to muscle fibers just as you see with raw chicken. Pulled-upon muscle restricts range of motion. All of that ongoing tug-of-war can cause trigger points to form.
Just like muscles, tight fascia can tear when quickly pulled which is the most frequent form of connective-tissue injury. Fascia does not recover easily on its own because it is not as elastic as muscle. It acts more like a plastic bag that has been overstretched. The body responds to a fascial tear by laying down more collagen matrix. Excess fibrous tissue can lay stiffly over your muscles rendering them undernourished with reduced function, weakness and increased waste build-up.
Another risk of abundant fascia is adherence to other structures which can cause further immobility and pain. For example, fascial pull on the surface of bones can cause bone spurs to form. Additionally, repetitive motions and postural imbalances can cause fascial thickening along lines of chronic tension in the body which can shorten range of motion. Plantar fasciitis is literally inflammation and often thickening of the fascia. The best way to soften fascia and keep it mobile beyond movement is through massage.
The Danger of Leaving Muscles and Fascia at Risk
Leaving muscles tight can cause dysfunction in knees, wrists, elbows and more. For example, because the quadriceps lead to the knee, tight quads can pull on the knee causing you pain. Tight muscles in the forearm can cause wrist pain. Both knee and wrist pain can make playing your sport difficult or impossible. Shortened range of motion through your back can affect your golf swing. Restricted hip rotation due to tight gluteal muscles and restricted hip flexion due to tight psoas muscles can limit the number of miles you can run.
How Massage Helps and Heals
Mild injury can cause micro-tears in soft tissue. Maybe you didn't stretch well enough before running that 5K and you pulled a muscle. Massage helps by bringing much-needed blood to areas being worked. Blood carries with it the repairing agents. It also helps to carry away wastes. Healing can occur faster because massage speeds the process by stimulating circulation. Massage can help new fascia and scar tissue lay down neatly with proper fiber direction that follows that of muscles, therefore supporting their natural range of motion and function. Massage can also help to dissolve older scar tissue. This improves function and makes muscles less prone to residual pain and re-injury. Also, new research has proven that massage suppresses inflammation and enhances cell recovery. This is why having a massage after exercise is beneficial. It helps to ward off soreness and speeds recuperation.
If you can feel an ache or pain anywhere in your body right now, it is likely due to tight muscles or a soft-tissue injury. Both acute and chronic musculoskeletal pain can be treated and possibly reversed with therapeutic massage therapy. Massage lengthens and broadens muscle tissue, softens fascia and can break up some scar tissue and other adhesions. Additionally, fascia plays a role as a detoxifier. Keeping it healthy, pliable and smooth through hydration and massage can help you stay more mobile and less toxic.
If you plan to start an exercise program, you may want to have a massage first to rid your body of fascial adhesions that restrict motion and trigger points that limit strength. Massage is also good for your joints, circulatory system and immune system. All of those things factor into your exercise regimen and in your daily life. Reduced stress levels and better sleep patterns are more benefits. Keeping your muscles stretched, relaxed and hydrated helps to keep them in peak performance so that you can do your best on the field, course or court.
Emily Hagen BCTMB, CNMT
Board Certified Neuromuscular Therapist
Right as Rain Massage, LLC