Fascia as an Auto-Regulatory System

Pages: 38-41
Year: 2014
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 42 – Nº 2

Volume: 42

Bruce Schonfeld: What is the current research saying about fascia being an auto-regulatory system in the body?

Tom Myers: It may be hard for some to understand how little was published about fascia in the 1970s. There was a hard-to-follow un-illustrated description of fascial planes by Edward Singer. There was a wonderful, prescient article by George Snyder on the fascia. Andrew Taylor Still, who started osteopathy, had written an obscure and contradictory book called Fasciae in the late 1800s. Those were really it. Here was Ida saying the fascia was very important and we all thought we were working on fascia. We all had ideas we were spouting about biological fabric and consciousness but there was very little research about the properties of fascia. So, it was mostly magical thinking we were doing back in those days.

Dr. Rolf was a woman who was equally comfortable having a foot both in the spiritual camp and the scientific research camp. She had certainly done both over the course of her life. She spoke often of the need to do research on fascia. When some money showed up, as I heard the story, she had the choice between a straight research project that would have given Rolfing® Structural Integration [SI] credibility in terms of things like oxygen consumption and other physiological responses. She chose instead to do the Valerie Hunt ‘energy’ study, which was much more spiritual and much less scientifically grounded. The Hunt study was a very interesting event but does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, in my opinion.

After Ida left us in 1979, there was Frances Wenger, a physiatrist, who was interested in getting some research going. His protégé, Thomas Findley, was also interested but it seemed to be like running on shale; a lot of activity and noise but not getting very far. Not until 2001 after Jim Oschman’s book Energy Medicine came out, did some seed money come together from IASI and the Rolf Institute® to form the first International Fascial Research Congress in Boston in 2007. That event brought researchers from a number of fields together with practitioners from a number of modalities. We met again in Amsterdam in 2009 and in Vancouver in 2012, each time with more excitement and connection between the two groups. The next one is planned for Washington DC in 2015. Having major scientific conferences so close together on a single subject like the connective-tissue web is quite extraordinary. We’ve discovered there is a lot of research out there on fascia; we just didn’t know about it.

For instance, a tremendous amount of research has been done on connective tissue in terms of wound healing. One of the things they wanted to know was, when you open up your body surgically or from a trauma, how does tissue (skin, muscle, fascia) get pulled back together? That’s a mechanical event. Tissue is tensioned in the body and splits apart when you open it up. Something has to pull it back together. We think of the skin as growing back together, cells simply proliferating, but actually, it gets pulled back together under the scab by cells called myofibroblasts, which tug and knit together the biological fabric as a bridge for the epithelial cells to use to link up. Myofibroblasts are fibroblasts induced to develop more and more actin, one of the muscle proteins that contracts inside the cell. That actin gets hooked to transmembranous proteins like integrins (now just one of 150 cell adhesive molecules). The cell reaches out its little fingers and grabs onto the fascial matrix and then contracts the actin and draws that fascia together. That is what is happening when the wound is closing. Now they have discovered these cells exerting a stiffening force on large sheets like the thoracolumbar fascia or the fascia lata or the crural fascia.

I’ll give you an example of how these smooth muscle-like fascial cells can be useful. If you are sitting for a long time, as you are on a plane, the water in your body tends to pool in your legs. The cells in these fascial sheets in your leg will sense the [resulting] tension applied to that fascia and will contract in the fascia like your own support socks, squeeze it around the water, and push it back up your lymph channels so you don’t get too edemic while you are waiting to land.

Really exciting things are coming from all over. We just didn’t know these things were going on until we finally set up these scientific conferences on fascia, and then anybody who had anything to do with fascia started clamoring, “Well, we want to be in your conference.” There are surgeons researching how fascia heals and doesn’t heal after operations. There was a Canadian meat scientist who was studying fascia in beef. (They want the meat to be tender and you know what makes tough meat? Fascia.) They were studying how fascia supports itself in cows, with basic research that had relevance to those of us in the bodywork field. We don’t have to sponsor all this ourselves; we just need to gather all the research that is going on.

BS: Tell us about fascial components.

TM: When we say the fascial system, we are talking about four elements: fibers, glue, water, and cells. The collagen fibers are what we always think about when we envision fascia, the white fabric-like strings that make up the ligaments, tendons, and sinews. But in between that is the amorphous gel of hydrophilic (meaning water-soaking and spongy) proteins that are at various stages of snot, if you will excuse me. They are called mucopolysaccharides, glycoaminoglycans, proteoaminoglycans, and you’ve heard words like heparin, chondroitin, fibronectin – all of these are fancy words for snot-like molecules that link the fibers together and provide lubrication and a highly adaptable medium for all the exchange that goes on. These many forms are also the glue that holds everything together. So the fiber is, as we often say in the Rolfing world, a three-dimensional spiderweb. But that spiderweb has dew all over it and that dew is the snot that holds it together and really acts like a sponge soaking up fluid and promoting its flow or its stasis, depending.

We have the fibers, we have all the hydrophilic proteins and we have the third element, water. Cells, principally fibroblasts, are the fourth element. Collagen, elastin, and reticulin form the fibers. I think there are twenty-six different kinds of identified collagen but I really can’t take you through the minor differences among the structural properties of those different states of collagen. There are around 150 of these hydrophilic proteins now that are in various arrays around the body. If you put these fibrous proteins, the spongy proteins, and water together, you really get a versatile spectrum that can make so many different kinds of things in the body. The lens and the cornea of the eye are made of a particular kind of collagen that is transparent.

All the ligaments, all the stuff around your muscles, all your mucous membranes, the ‘leather’ in your bones and cartilage, and the bags of your organs are all held in fascia. It’s the ubiquitous body-building material that makes everything you might get at Home Depot, if you wanted to build a body of your own. If you were doing the Frankenstein thing in the laboratory you would get wood or PVC for the bones. You’d get silicone for the cartilage. You’d get string and rubber tubing and some kind of insulation and rubber for the insulation. And where would we be without duct tape? Your body makes all of these things by combining those fibers and mucous proteins together in different amounts of water. Those materials are all over the body. They are all around the muscles. They form one big system.

BS: That’s what we are interested in as Rolfers, the system.

TM: But here’s the trouble: in 500 years of anatomy we haven’t seen that as a system. We have described our biomechanics in terms of individual parts, and we still name them in terms of those individual parts, and it’s really hard to think other than those individual parts – iliotibial band, sacrotuberous ligament, rectus femoris, thoracolumbar fascia, nuchal ligament, etc. We have all these names for different parts in something that is absolutely unitary and whole. There are two other major whole-body systems: the circulatory system and the nervous system. We have names for parts of those too. We talk about the vagus nerve or a peripheral nerve or even a particular individual neuron in the nervous system, and all the different parts of the brain like the brain stem, the pons, and the cerebellum. But we know, even though we talk about parts, that the nervous system is all one big system. It operates as a self-regulating system. We understand the autonomic nervous system. We understand that there is a kind of seesaw between the sympathetic and parasympathetic in terms of how we are aroused in different parts of our body at different times. This system regulates itself without a lot of thought on our part. It’s an autonomic; our automatic self-regulating system.

The circulatory system is likewise a self-regulatory system that runs itself in terms of blood sugar, insulin, and hormone levels going up and down; a fluctuating of flow within limits. We have names within that system too. We talk about the aorta, this artery, and that vein. But if you have been to the Body Worlds exhibit, you understand this is one big circulatory system. It is an event; it is easy to see as a whole system. This is also true for the neural net.

But now we are talking about the third system, the fascial system. We don’t really have an idea of how the whole system works. We have an idea of all the individual parts; this tendon, this ligament, this interosseous membrane, this bone, and this joint capsule. But science in general and the physiotherapy world in particular doesn’t think of it (as we do) as a system that is communicating with itself all over the body to regulate our mechanics. We have described our mechanics in terms of levers and force vectors that are applied to a structure with x amount of deformation. Consequently, we have come up with a ‘parts-based’ idea of how the body works mechanically. Our medical system treats the Achilles tendon or a SLAP tear as local separate failures. That idea has taken us some way down the road. We can certainly say things about support, posture, and rehabilitation from this model of thinking.

Ida Rolf called on us to consider this ‘lost’ system as a holistic regulatory system, but history has worked against this concept. Imagine we went back to 1540 to Vesalius’ laboratory in Padua to see all his scalpels, cleavers, and the various tools that he used to cut up (the literal meaning of ‘anatomize’) a body. Anyway, I imagine going there and taking all his scalpels and cleavers away and leaving a big vat of detergent that would dissolve the cellular material in the body. In my dream, Vesalius would come in the next morning and pick up his cadaver and dip it into the cell solvent. (They are doing this now and actually a common detergent in shampoos works pretty well.) All the cells would dissolve away and you would be left with this unending webbing that surrounds every cell and every organ. This image, this preparation, would have changed the course of anatomical history.

About 70 trillion cells (that is what they think now, it’s pretty hard to count) are all held together by this fabric. Imagine how each muscle exists within this fascial webbing. It does not necessarily pull only from end to end, which is what we have assumed with muscles. It pulls on the whole web and therefore can have effects quite far away from the muscle itself. This really hasn’t been accounted for in our biomechanics and this was an idea that Ida was talking about back in the 70s. We all said, “Oh yes, this is a very holistic idea,” but it was kind of lip service; we didn’t really have a way of speaking or identifying or quantifying how this goes. In the new research, this is all changing and we are beginning to see how the muscles work at a distance, work on other structures, other than their two ends.

BS: Any other pieces in terms of the historical aspect of Dr. Rolf speaking to the fascia as an auto-regulatory system?

TM: She spoke in large, historical terms referencing the auto-regulatory system all the time; the man, mankind, or the person. Look at the chapters toward the end of her book. What she said is what you could say at that time, an assertion, rather than a scientifically proven fact, that the fascia works as a whole. But filling in the details through research has been left to the last decade or two, and has really been coming together in the last few years. The general idea of the Rolfing ten-session series as she taught it was to undertake working with the whole body because patterns went through the whole body. It wasn’t a matter of individual muscles being at fault or individual bits failing.

She did not have the idea of ‘tensegrity,’ which I find crucial. I was familiar with it; I studied with Bucky Fuller before I came to Ida Rolf. I had studied about tensegrity in terms of architecture, but I had never thought about applying it to the body. There was a man named Ron Kirkby who introduced the idea to our community, and Dr. Stephen Levin, an orthopedist, who tirelessly developed the idea in the medical community, but it was the alternative community that was doing the most listening. I, having studied with Bucky, grabbed that idea and ran with it. Tensegrity gives you a visual feel of how the body responds as a whole.

Let me back up and say, the body is a strain-distribution machine, not a strain-focusing machine. Imagine taking every muscle off the body except the biceps and saying, “What would the biceps do to the skeleton if it were the only muscle on the body?” You think of it acting only from one end to the other end and therefore we say the biceps is a supinator, an elbow flexor, and a weak diagonal flexor of the shoulder. Then we wipe our hands and walk away saying we know what a biceps does. But in fact, a biceps never works alone on a body, never ever. And it doesn’t only work end to end. It works on the brachialis and coracobrachialis beside it, and the bicep has a tendon into the forearm flexors on the other end. It has all kinds of connections to the ligaments of the shoulder. Muscles are working on nearby structures aside from what we are pleased to call their function, which we narrowly define as end to end. Dr. Rolf had a definite intuitive sense of this from her experience of yoga, her training in osteopathy, and doing her own work. But articulating it more specifically has been the job of various people; some of those people being Deane Juhan, John Smith in his Structural Bodywork book, me in my book, and through the models of Stephen Levin and Tom Flemons. It’ll be a long journey to get to specific bio-tensegrity engineering, but a productive one. Danielle Claude- Martin is doing great work in this field, as is osteopath Graham Scarr in England.

BS: Where are we with current research validating fascia as an auto-regulatory system and communicating beyond the origin-and-insertion type of mechanism that is more localized?

TM: The idea of myofascial slings and closed or open kinetic chains of muscles – which is muscle action at a distance through the fascia – is very present in the personal-training and rehabilitation fields. The idea of putting those muscles together through the fascia in slings is something I put into my book, Anatomy Trains, which is more of a map or image than a scientific proof. More scientific researchers, like Andry Vleeming and Diane Lee, have done work on the fascial sling. For instance, they are documenting the biomechanical connection from the latissimus on one side over through the thoracolumbar fascia to the gluteus on the other. Another connection from the pectoral muscles continues from the external oblique on one side, through the pubic bone over to the adductor longus on the other side. These kinds of oblique slings and other slings have been studied and documented in terms of actually putting ‘strainometers’ into the fascia and pulling on one end and seeing the strain show up at the other. It’s more than just a ‘good idea’ now.

B SWhat about myofascial force transmission?

TM: All of the Anatomy Trains that I have put into my book, I have dissected out of the body. I am pretty sure they can be an objective reality but nobody has done the work to actually document the pull on the scalp showing up on the feet or the other way around. I am more speculative and ahead of the science in that way. But researchers with more money and patience than I have are documenting myofascial force transmission beyond the origin and insertion to farther away.

Secondly, people have documented myofascial force transmission through the fascia from one muscle to the muscle beside it. We never thought of things that way. We thought of force going from one end of the biceps to the other.

When you are jumping rope and landing on the balls of your feet, our regular biomechanics would say the soleus and gastrocnemius are taking the force, that the tendon is elastic, so you are kind of bouncing on the tendon – or, in older thinking about it, bouncing on the muscle. As it turns out, when the Achilles tendon is stretched, it transmits force not only to the soleus and gastrocnemius but also to the deep posterior compartment underneath and to the peroneals over to the side. Only 50-65% of the force is making it to the other end of the muscle. About half to one-third of the forces are being distributed sideways to other muscles. Once you start thinking this way, you see it takes all the strain off of one muscle and distributes it out through the whole lower leg, therefore you don’t have to be so strong, your body doesn’t have to be so heavy, you don’t have to have so much muscle because the load is distributed over all the tissues of the lower leg, upper leg, trunk, etc. Your actual body is much more efficient than the way we have thought about biomechanics for the past 400 years.

Myofascial transmission also goes beyond the muscles to the ligaments, which is really interesting. In the previous way of thinking, if I were lowering my arm from a ‘preacher curl,’ the ligaments of the elbow were doing nothing, nothing, nothing until bam! I get to full extension and suddenly the ligaments stop the joint from damaging itself by limiting the motion. Again, that is really inefficient. Why would you have a system that was inert and inactive and redundant until you got out to the end range of motion? You don’t get out to the end range of motion very much unless you are a yogi and into deep stretching. If you are chopping wood or something like that, you are not going from one end of your range to the other; you are working in the middle range. (You have a tremendous amount of force going through the joints when you are chopping wood, but you are not necessarily at the end range of motion.) We now know that when the muscle contracts, it also tenses the ligaments nearby. Anatomists put a scalpel in between the muscle and the ligaments and then declare them to be parallel systems. Well of course they are parallel systems you jackass, you just put a scalpel in between them and separated them. But in the body they are not separate. When I tense my quads, I am also tensing the medial and lateral collateral ligaments (and the ‘new’ anterolateral ligament). I am also tensing the ligaments along the bridle at the front of the knee. I am also tensing the ligaments along the front of my hip because they are extensions of the vasti muscles. Again, muscles don’t simply contract from end to end – they just contract and tense whatever tissue is in the neighborhood. And the ligaments are in the neighborhood.

Finally, there is the neurovascular bundle that comes to supply the muscle, arriving by way of fascial sheaths. That is the fourth place where the fascia is connected into the muscle, which we haven’t actually thought about in our regular biomechanics. The nerve and the blood supply have to be able to accommodate movement of the muscle. The currently popular ‘nerve work’ frees adhesions in this unique part of the fascia.

All this research is pointing us toward Ida’s idea of the system as a whole working together. The body is clearly a strain-distribution machine, not a strain-focusing machine. ‘Myofascial force transmission’ is clearly a misnomer – there is simply fascial force transmission. Muscles are active organs and nerves and viscera more passive organs within that singular web. Tom Myers was certified as a Rolfer in 1976, and remains a member of the Rolf Institute. Author of Anatomy Trains (2014) and co-author of Fascial Release for Structural Balance (2010), Tom directs Kinesis, which offers continuing education and SI training worldwide, from his home on the coast of Maine.

Bruce Schonfeld is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California. He teaches continuing education classes in Fascial Integration: Structural-Visceral Approaches through the Rolf Institute and International Alliance of Healthcare Educators.Fascia as an Auto-Regulatory System[:]

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