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Fascia: Weaving Cross-Physiological Connections

Updated: Feb 24, 2022



Fascia was first described to me as a liquid sensory organ that holds together our inner-anatomical worlds. A wild concept, right? What I didn’t know then was how essential this liquid organ is to the rest of our body, like how entangled it is with our sensory and nervous systems, how much it informs our brain, and how it influences the ways we experience the world around us.


The Bigger Picture: What Can We Get More Curious About?


In this article, we'll explore how to utilize a holistic and neurodiverse perspective as we learn and digest information about Fascia. We'll look at the information that's already out there and vocalize the questions that the research unearths, regarding Fascia as a possible root cause of other physical and emotional experiences.


We'll start by asking: what kinds of information can lead to the exploration of new connections, and how can we explore those even further? Are there potential connections to Fascia that we aren’t seeing fully yet?


First, we’ll break down what Fascia is, where it exists in the body, which systems it influences, and how that influence can manifest in a variety of symptoms and conditions. Then we’ll address other questions, like how it all connects to the bigger picture.


What is Fascia?


Fascia is a major connective tissue extending around every structure and system of the body. Think of it as a fibrous blanket wrapped around our organs and bones, each layer dense with millions of diverse nerve endings that relay essential information to the rest of the body, specifically the brain! In return, this affects everything from motor processing and sensory input to knowing where our bodies exist in space.



Fascia is packed with a diverse community of nerve endings that are capable of biomechanical feats scientists can’t yet replicate artificially. This function of the organ creates the ultimate connective tissue phenomenon, enabling every individual part of our body to act together as one cohesive whole. Without Fascia, our bones would grind together when we move and our muscles wouldn't flex or receive electrical signals properly.


Fascia also plays a key role in the mind-body connection, how we physically experience the world, and how we process sensory input (touch, sound, taste, smell, etc).


“What is fascinating about Fascia is that there are 3 times as many sensory neurons than motor neurons; thus, fascia has a primary role of communicating information about what’s happening in your body to your brain.

Fascia relays important information to our nervous system through the Vagus Nerve and holds a potential link to conditions ranging from sensory processing disorders and dyspraxia (motor-processing condition that affects speech) to mental health.


Diversity in Layers


There are many different types of Fascia, starting with the Superficial layers beneath the skin down to the deeper layers that wrap around our bones, muscles, and muscle fibers (Myofascia).


“Fascia possesses the ability to rhythmically expand and contract.”

Each layer of Fascia consists of stretchy collagen fibers that are woven together to form an intricate and web-like mesh. Different layers consist of different types of collagen and different levels of weave. This diversity in form enables the Fascia to meet the specific needs of local organs, loosening the fibrous mesh when it needs to be more flexible, and tightening it back up when it needs to hold firm and strong (Fascia has a firm hold around blood vessels, for example).



Healthy Fascia vs. Fascia “Fuzz”


Healthy Fascia is well-hydrated and flexible. It is deeply intertwined with the nervous system, influences immune system functions, and even provides a lubricating layer around the lungs that intertwines with the Fascia around the heart (called the Pericardium).


Fascia wraps around your digestive organs too, and can also be found in each of your endocrine glands, playing a key role in transmitting hormones (adrenaline, estrogen, insulin, thyroid hormones, oxytocin) and neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine) throughout your entire body.


Alternatively, Fascia can harden or become stiff, creating less flexible tissue often referred to as "Fascia Fuzz". Lack of movement, emotional stress, physical injury, and historical trauma can cause Fascia Fuzz, but can also be caused by something as simple as sleep. While rest is regenerative to our brains, lack of movement while we sleep can cause Fascia to stiffen, which is another reason why adding basic stretching exercises to your morning routine could be beneficial to overall health.


Over time, the fuzz can build up and be associated with chronic pain, systemic inflammation, histamine intolerance, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. What helps? Gentle movement, deep breathing, massage, hydration, and a general awareness that Fascia is present, and working in tandem with you.


A Biomechanical Phenomenon


There was a time when doctors and scientists referred to Fascia as the “filler tissue” of the body. They would often remove it during surgeries to gain a clearer line of vision to the organ they were actually focusing on. Now we know that Fascia is not only essential to our body but that it’s capable of a biomechanical kind of shape-shifting ability that science can’t yet explain.


“The fascial system has a solid and a liquid component, acting in a perfect symbiotic synchrony.”

Fascia can change its chemical properties depending on the task or need at hand. If the body needs it to be more rigid, it can firm up into a gel-like form. If a muscle, bone, or organ needs to slip around more easily, it can essentially liquefy itself so things can move more freely and without injury.


Some scientists have theorized that this capability is a reaction to stress: that the tissue is like a liquid crystal and, like solid crystals, when pressure is applied the electric charge shifts, causing cells in the tissue to produce or break down key components like collagen. Others think the transformation has more to do with the nerve and muscle cells in the tissues.


Fascia is also rich in a special kind of neural receptor called Mechanosensors. These receptors are capable of detecting pressure and stretching accordingly. When triggered, they can communicate with the cells in a muscle to relax, or dilate to constrict blood vessels. This would, in theory, enable the layers to adjust their state of being.


Hypermobility - Starting with a Gene that Leads to Fascia


Hypermobility refers to the ability to stretch, bend, or flex to an extended degree. Those with hypermobility can often feel more intense joint pain and experience spontaneous joint dislocation to the point of injury as a result. Hypermobility is a hereditary condition that results in abnormal forms of collagen in the connective tissue throughout the body.



Fascia and the Nervous System


The Vagus Nerve is an important part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls the body's involuntary actions like maintaining our heartbeat, breathing, etc.


Some refer to the Vagus Nerve as a bi-directional information highway between the brain and the body. This nerve stretches all throughout the body and plays an important role in many systems, including the digestive system (which is, you guessed it, connected to Fascia!). Our guts produce similar neurotransmitters as our brains do. These neurochemicals are communicated between our digestive system and the brainstem via the Vagus Nerve, but the fascia is essential in the quality of the conversation.



Getting Curious about Connections: Tactile and Sensory Systems


There are several conditions associated with Fascial health, affecting everything from our heart rate to our motor processing abilities.


Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a genetic condition classified as a Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder (HSD) that causes the body to produce abnormal collagen, therefore affecting the structure of the connective tissue until it can loosen and become lax (remember the earlier paragraph on hypermobility?).


When Fascia is softened due to a lack of collagen production, its ability to fully respond to the local needs of the body is affected along with the efficiency of the body's communication systems, including the Vagus Nerve. A variety of conditions and symptoms can result, as the ability to relay information to the brain with efficiency affects everything from the way we move the muscles in our face to speak, to how our limbs convey spatial awareness to our brains.


Interestingly, Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder (HSD) is often co-occurring with several other differences known primarily for heightened sensory sensitivities, including Autism, ADHD, Joint Hypermobility Disorder (JHD), and more. While researching, our curiosity was piqued at the correlation of sensory processing and hypermobility in relation to each one of these conditions.


The unending question then remains: Why? Where and how do these symptoms and conditions connect?


“Children with joint hypermobility often get a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder (SPD) and many of the issues related to having lax joints and a fearful nature are ascribed to sensory issues.”

Another relevant example, also often co-occurring with Autism, is Dyspraxia: a condition characterized by an impairment in motor function skills that negatively impacts other aspects of daily living such as athletic capability, handwriting, self-esteem, and social interaction.


Dyspraxia is a disorder of the neuromuscular system, a system that involves our nervous system and how our muscles work together to control, direct, and allow movement of the body.


Could this mean that Fascia could be one of the root causes for neuromuscular disorders that affect an individual's ability to speak, perform motor-related tasks, know where the body is in space, and process sensory input like touch?


Dyspraxia is linked to Autism, and Autism is linked to Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders (including Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome).


Fascia and Motor Synergies


A study on Fascial organization of motor synergies (the coordination of neural and physical elements) in 2019 sought to determine exactly what influences our ability toward motor control.


“It is our contention that the flexible hierarchical organization of movement relies on the fascial structures to create functional linkages at different levels, and this concept attunes with the neural control of synergies.”

The researchers determined that at the base of movement organization there is a (somatic) equilibrium point that exists on the fascia where the neurologically and mechanically-generated tensions dynamically balance out. This somatic equilibrium point is at the base of postural control (the way our Central Nervous System regulates sensory information from other systems), the afferent flow of information to the nervous system about the state of the muscles, and of the coordinative pre-activation of muscular contraction sequences specific for a synergy (Garofolini, A., & Svanera, D., 2019).


Now let’s take a look at the sensory processing experiences of Autistic individuals. What do we, as a society, generally associate with Autism? Difficulty with speech (Dyspraxia), auditory processing difficulties, aversion to touch, fearfulness (Sensory Processing Disorders and trauma). Did you get a pit in your stomach too, when you realized that each one of these symptoms of sensory processing could potentially be linked back to a softened Fascia, and how “lax joints” and collagen depriving genetic conditions so often co-occur with neurodivergent individuals who experience sensory overwhelm, lack of spatial awareness, and motor-processing disorders to a disabling degree? It’s time we dig much deeper.


The Roots of Sensory Overwhelm


A study by the University of San Francisco in 2019 announced findings regarding sensory processing disorders in Autistic children as a "Biological Breakthrough Study".


Through varied control groups and a form of MRI imaging called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI - which measures the microscopic movement of water molecules within the brain in order to give information about the brain’s white matter tracts) researchers found that the Autistic children in the study had "abnormal white matter tracts" in their brain structure that the non-Autistic-identifying children did not have (note: the brain's white matter is "essential for perceiving, thinking, and learning").


The DTI imaging reported higher amounts of less directional water diffusion in the white matter of the Autistic children's brains than in the non-Autistic-identifying children, "indicating impaired white matter microstructure". What is Fascia made up of? 70% water, among other things like proteins.


If you're interested in seeing this up close, check out the video below. It starts with the fascia surrounding a tendon and ends with visuals of water moving through a hollowed tube-like strand of Fascia.


The 2019 study also noted that the abnormalities in white matter were "primarily involving areas in the back of the brain that serve as connections for the auditory, visual, and somatosensory (tactile) systems involved in sensory processing, including their connections between the left and right halves of the brain." And what is white matter made of, other than water? Collagen.



Not only is white matter a tissue made of Collagen VI, to be exact, but this collagen is also consistently higher in white matter than in grey matter.


"The children with autism (in the study) showed a stronger response to stimuli than controls do in brain regions that process emotion: the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. They also show hypersensitivity in regions that process sensory information, such as the visual cortex and the thalamus.

To make an even further correlation between sensory processing disorders, hypermobility, Autism, collagen, the brain, and Fascia.. in its earliest stages of development, the Hippocampus (located in the back of the brain, effecting emotion, learning, memory, and motivation) is called Fascia Dentata.


While Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is often associated with affecting the Collagen V type, it can also be associated with Collagen VI, a type of EDS which is often referred to as Kyphoscoliotic (referring to genetic mutations in the PLOD1 gene, which instructs the body to create certain collagen-producing enzymes).


"Genetic data indicate similarities (between EDS and Autism) at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, as illustrated by numerous genetic syndromes with comorbid autism and hypermobility."


An article called Breaking Through: Massage + Autism beautifully breaks down the details of the correlation between sensory processing disorders and Autism.


“Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) exists when the brain cannot detect multiple sensory signals or organize them into one appropriate response. This misfire likely causes the developmental disabilities that affect how an individual on the Autistic spectrum learns, thinks, and problem-solves. ‘There are eight sensory systems in your body that are supposed to take in stimulation around you, integrate that information so your body can respond appropriately, and help you feel safe in the world around you.’ - Tami Goldstein, certified craniosacral therapist and autism advocate and educator.

I’ve listed the most relevant points regarding this topic below, but highly encourage you to visit the original article and read tips that can help ease tension for individuals when seeking massage treatment.


As you read, notice how each experience can be connected back to how the Fascia affects communications with the brain (neurophysiology), and therefore that “equilibrium point” we mentioned before that acts as the base of movement organization and is rooted in the Fascia.


Common Sensory Processing Difficulties


Auditory (sound) Some individuals are unable to filter where a sound is coming from. The primal response is first to experience fear, and then to run.

Tactile (touch) Individuals with ASD and SPD are often over (or under) sensitive to touch. If over-registering, everything seems to be coming at them too fast and their muscles send a message to flee danger. If under-registered, there’s little to no awareness of tactile stimulation.

Olfactory (smell) When the sense of smell misfires, any aroma, including a massage cream or oil, may elicit high-level anxiety and alarming fear.

Vestibular (spacial awareness) This refers to the sense of head movement in space, which plays a role in the body’s sense of balance, awareness of space, gravity and movement. When the vestibular system malfunctions, an individual feels “lost in space.”

Proprioception (body awareness) Linked to the vestibular and tactile systems, the proprioceptive system allows for body awareness, which tells the mind where the body begins and ends, and with how much force and through what line of motion to move. “Children whose proprioceptive system is not working may find touch extremely alarming since they can’t sense where they’re being touched,” Benbow explains.

Interoception (internal awareness) This system is responsible for detecting internal regulation responses, such as breathing, hunger, heart rate, and the need to go to the bathroom. A misfiring interoceptive system makes it difficult to understand emotional reactions.


Will we ever look at sensory processing disorders the same way again? I know I won’t. So now we must ask..what’s next?

Looking Further Into the Research, Treatments, and Results

A pilot study of Fascia Bowen therapy for 8-11 year-old boys with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), found that while 60% of the boys experienced the incredible result of no longer meeting the motor impairment criteria for being clinically classified as having a movement difficulty, psycho-social aspects (how the social environment affects mental wellness) remained unchanged after therapy, presumably due to the shorter timeframe of the study. The results pertaining to motor ability, however, were revolutionary.


“Further research in DCD is needed to test the effectiveness of fascia Bowen in larger studies with expanded ages and both genders over longer periods, including the generalisation of results of these longer interventions to different areas of life beyond motor ability.”

Leading with a Question


With all this connective information braided into a more cohesive thread, what curiosities have been piqued for you? What questions do we ask next? Who gets involved and how can we shift the way we approach sensory processing disorders and co-occurring conditions?


After all, “Knowledge is power”, and oftentimes, progress.



 







References


Garofolini, A., & Svanera, D. (2019). Fascial organisation of motor synergies: a hypothesis. European journal of translational myology, 29(3), 8313. https://doi.org/10.4081/ejtm.2019.8313








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