This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
Soreness, stiffness and general discomfort are often blamed on muscle tightness, strains or pulls or perhaps even bone, ligament or joint problems. And while such symptoms may in fact be due to problems with these body parts, it is also entirely possible that one mysterious group of connective tissue fibers is responsible for the body-wide pain you’re experiencing.
What Is Your Fascia?
You may have heard of fascia as it relates to plantar fasciitis, the result of inflammation in the fascia of the foot that causes intense pain in the heel. But fascia plays a much larger role in the body.
The tightly packed bundles of dense regular connective tissues, the type of connective tissue that bundles in a parallel fashion, create a sheet of tissue beneath your skin that covers the entirety of your body. This tissue is comprised of densely packed protein fibers that wind their way throughout your body, binding to muscles, bones and organs, and giving them structural support in the process.
Fascia is packed with sensory neurons — approximately six times greater than in most other body tissue — and is therefore particularly sensitive. The sensory neurons in your fascia play a large role in communication among muscle systems, helping them to function properly.
How Fascia Impact Your Health
While the density of sensory neurons in fascia are key for muscle function and communication, they also represent the primary method through which your fascia can negatively impact your health. If your fascia becomes tight, sticky or stiff, it may result in general aches and pains throughout the body, which can irritate muscles, joints and other body tissues and connections.
On the other hand, maintaining a flexible, stretchy fascia helps the body to move and bend more easily, allows muscles to slide and react more smoothly and effectively and helps to keep pain and stiffness at bay.
How to Improve the Health of Your Fascia
So now that you know what condition your fascia should be in for proper function, how can you help get it there?
Well, for starters, think about how most of us generally feel in the morning — feeling stiff, sore or cramped as we get out of bed and start to move around isn’t uncommon. Just as animals do, especially cats, stretching in the morning helps to relieve that tension and break up muscle “fuzz.” This example is a microcosm of the causes of, and remedies for, fascia tightness.
Generally speaking, inactivity, repetitive motions, sitting for long periods of time, a lack of stretching and injuries may all contribute to unhealthy fascia. However, on the other hand, the good news is that you can greatly improve the health of your fascia by doing a few basic exercises and activities.
The most basic way to make your fascia healthier is to stretch. It’s never a bad idea to stretch out in the morning, before or after a workout, after sitting for an extended period of time or before bed. And doing so can help your fascia perform more effectively. Foam rollers are an effective way to stretch out fascia and are great for targeting particularly sore or tight areas. Stretching your appendages and joints to utilize their full range of motion helps as well.
Beyond stretching, there are still a number of other ways to improve your fascia’s health and performance. Massages to release fascia are helpful, and tennis balls make great options for a self-massage to target fascia since they grip the skin and help loosen layers of fascia. Light exercises in which the body covers a wide range of motion, such as walking or swimming, are great options too. Hydration is important for fascia health as well, helping to keep tissues loose and lubricated, so be sure to drink plenty of water and fluids. Lastly, if you think you need a little extra help, massage therapists may be able to loosen hard-to-tackle areas and may have more advice about regular maintenance and stretches.