16 Apr 2018 Fascia and Proprioception: what are they and what do they mean for those with EDS?
As a sufferer of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or hypermobility, you may not be familiar with the terms fascia and proprioception. I wasn’t until well into my health journey. But, whilst sounding complicated, these words actually describe things that are very simple, amazing, fascinating, as well as intrinsic to these conditions.
Fascia is a three-dimensional sheet of internal connective tissue in our bodies the covers everything; wrapping around muscles, bones, organs, vessels and the nervous system. It separates different layers of tissue, preventing friction, and has been likened to a cling-film that protects the various elements of your body.
Fascia is connected to the way we live and move in the world. It tenses up when we feel threatened, loosens when we’re happy and at ease, and it’s responsible for sensations like prickling at the back of your neck. It also has an elastic quality, contracting and expanding, and stores and releases the kinetic energy from our body’s movement. Fascia is the biggest sensory organ in the whole body – which is why I believe building sensory awareness in our bodies is crucial to healthy movement. It helps prevent or minimise stress to a local muscle and it protects the integrity of the whole body.
Our fascia plays a fundamental role in proprioception, which is our ability to know where we are in the space around us and sense movement within our joints. Proprioception also allows our body to respond to our environment more quickly than our conscious mind. Those in the hypermobile community may be aware that they lack these full capabilities but may not be entirely sure why. The reason is that fascia has 10 times more proprioceptors than muscle (Myers 2011). This can pose a problem for EDS sufferers as fascia is made up of dense bundles of collagen – and EDS is caused by a collagen defect. So, if our collagen-based fascia isn’t fully functioning as it should, then it appears that our proprioception could be affected too.
Because fascia is everywhere, and because EDS and hypermobility sufferers have genetic collagen problems, it can mean that those with the condition can feel it affects anywhere in the body – from the heart and lungs to digestion, muscles and joints. And because it is everywhere, this is how that myofascial pain we experience seems to spread around the body, often with no particular pattern or reason. It is transmitted through the fascia.
However, there are ways that you can seek to protect and promote your fascia’s health, in turn providing your body with a stronger foundation from which movement can emanate. Below, I have provided some advice on how you can do this. These tips don’t just apply to those with EDS, however, and I’m pleased to see there’s a growing understanding and awareness of the importance of fascia for the overall health of everyone.
My top tips:
Don’t force it
If, as some with hypermobility, I’m forcing or pushing my body whilst exercising or moving, my fascia is going to respond by getting tighter and tenser. This puts me on the path to pain but also increases my chance of subluxing. Listening to your body and adopting a ‘no pain, no strain’ approach is what will allow your fascia to move freely and not tighten.
Relax your mind
Your fascia also responds to your mental as well as physical approach. If we can relax our busy minds and release the fear of movement then the fascia will help allow for that movement. Moving with awareness and care is what will give you greater mental and physical freedom.
Not forcing your body doesn’t mean to stop moving altogether – in fact, this can allow your fascia to harden and get stiff which in turn will create more pain. Instead, focusing on gentle, rolling actions as small and regular movements of the body is what will help keep your fascia elastic. Breathing awareness and proper breathing techniques are key to unlocking this positive type of movement.
In our hectic approach to life, we’re constantly looking for quick fixes and easy solutions but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. The fitness industry might try to suggest that tension in the fascia is something which can be ‘released’ with the right steps, big stretches or foam rolling, but reducing tightness is a long-term process, not the work of an instant. In order to elongate tissues such as fascia, what is needed is sustained gentle pressure over a long period of time. Gentle exercise is what will hydrate the fascia with movement, increasing its health and, in the long term allowing you to do more.
Here’s to happy, healthy fascia.