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“Where you think it is, it ain’t”

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This famous quote from Dr. Ida Rolf was probably uttered long before she met her student, Thomas Myers.   She was known for creating the hands-on, deep tissue program known as Rolfing® and conceived of the myofascial scaffolding long before we knew much about it.  Her quote seems to reference “referred pain” which is a complex issue but basically occurs when a source of pain is somewhere other than where it is felt.   See last week’s blog, “Planes, Trains and Vectors,” for a review on fascia’s linkages and the latest buzz around self-massage research and instruction.  Rolfing®   and the concept of fascia were once seen as “alternative medicine” because there was no clinical “proof” but researchers are now delivering some compelling evidence – with more on the way.

orange fasica demonstration
Fascia provides the optimal interconnected scaffolding for your body’s many layered parts. Image courtesy of The Roll Model by Jill Miller

Aside from the Anatomy Trains view of functional lines of fascia within our body, Myers’ textbook also summarizes his overall theory of the stability of human frame as a whole, using the term “tensegrity.”  This word was originally coined by an architect and inventor named Buckminster Fuller.  Applying the idea of “tensional integrity” to the human frame suggests that our bones are suspended within a continuous fascial net of floating, but supportive tissues, producing mechanical stability.  In this type of structure, tension on one area impacts another; like cables on a suspension bridge.  Human design was previously seen from the perspective of “compression;” more like bricks stacked in gravity.  This concept proposes that myofascial “lines” carry forces from one body segment to the next during movement.

Visualize the consecutive chain of body segments that must activate when brushing long hair, or chopping wood or throwing a baseball.  The “chain” concept is not an entirely new idea, but suggesting that the transmission and deceleration of force via connectivity of continuous fascia is the newer twist.

Thanks to current laboratory researchers including Gil Hedley, we have learned in meticulous dissection studies that muscles are often embedded in the fascial sheets and cannot easily be separated, supporting this fascial “line” concept.  We have a lot more to learn about the human architecture, fascia, movement and neuro-receptors.  Fitness and movement educators always want to know about “generating force” which is what happens with muscle movement, therefore we seem to focus on measuring ball rolling “forces” on fascia.  However, science tells us that mechanical intervention on tissue (force) generates many types of changes:  chemical, structural, or neurological; so are we trying to measure the right construct in our ongoing research?  Is there something else going on that we cannot even conceive? Stay tuned for updates!!

So where does the idea of continuity within the fascia appear in different modalities?

“Kinetic chain” concepts have been around for some time.  Fascia research is still closely questioned and considered theory, but orthopedic specialists, sports medicine and physical therapists have understood and utilized the body’s “kinetic chains” in rehabilitation practice for years with positive results.  They have recognized that defined sequences of muscle coordination exist in patterns of multi-joint movements throughout a body segment, impacting each other.   A chain of joints exercised together such as the hip, knee, and ankle joints, comprise the “lower extremity kinetic chain,” as an example. While this model is utilized in standard medical practice, it sure carries similarity to the myofascial lines theory.  Is it just semantics or a case of blurred lines?

Reflexes/ Gait Patterns.  Humans have motor development milestones that occur as infants and body reflexes which are a part of healthy development and motor control.  Certain segments of the body develop neurological linkages that work in symphony with others (e.g. kinetic chain).  Most obvious is perhaps our gait (walking) pattern, where a naturally contralateral movement or “cross-crawl” of opposite arm moves with opposite leg.   Sometimes these synchronizations get confused or have signal problems and we end up with inhibited muscles that won’t contract, but we may not always realize why something feels “off”.  “Where you think it is, it ain’t.”   When the gait pattern is out of whack, an inhibited gluteus maximus on one side typically accompanies a tight low back, that is trying to “help” or compensate and there are often issues in the opposite side latissimus dorsi.  Why does this happen with a movement that an individual has successfully executed for years?   This dysfunction is seen frequently in physical therapy clinics and gyms and called kinetic chain, but also fits into the theoretical “Functional Back Line” from Myers.  Applied medicine and theory meet again.

To use our knowledge of chains and lines in daily life, consider your low back. This is a place we have all experienced myofascial connections. It is a busy area where forces are generated, absorbed (decelerated) or transferred from lower to upper body or vice versa.  Low back tension may come from the kinetic chain gait example above, or other brisk activities, or inactivity.  Since the low back is also a place where referred pain or tension occurs, it presents a challenge for medical providers.   Back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, but most of it is termed “non-specific” or “idiopathic” meaning from unknown cause.  There is speculation that fascia may be a major player in such pain.  The thoracolumbar fascia (TLF) is a multi-layered sheet of connective tissue at the low back which forms an intersection for muscles from several body segments and also shows up as a junction for most of Myers’ fascial “lines.”   The TLF is a deep, layered tendonous sheet also called an aponeurosis, which is almost constantly activated whether we are moving or standing still due to the array of muscles that attach into it from front to back, above and below and the lumbar vertebrae to which it anchors.  When a cranky muscle feeds tension into the TLF, there are ramifications for the fascia and its other muscle relations.   Hopefully the fascia researchers that will help us to guide people with back pain towards relief because currently our treatment results are impotent.

Evolving research has influenced some hands on approaches for chiropractors, physical therapists and massage practitioners.  In the workout world, we have seen a powerful wave of change towards comprehensive compound exercises; multi-joint, multiple body segment workouts.  Fortunately people are edging away from the old muscle isolation strength training model (e.g. biceps on a nautilus machine) which has little relationship for better function in daily life.   CrossFit, use of free weights and body weight exercises, TRX Suspension Training®, BOSU® for strength, and of course Pilates, Yoga and now Yoga Tune Up® offer excellent compound exercises for mobility and stability.

Come back Friday for my recommendations to unravel tension and enhance well being through movement!


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