What is Fascia?

The Miracle Beneath Our Skin

By Karrie Osborn

When we think of what lies underneath our skin, words like epidermis and dermis, muscle and bone, and blood vessels and nerves all come to mind. But what also lies beneath the skin—working small little miracles every second—is something called fascia.
Ever heard of it? Your massage or bodywork therapist may have used this word during your sessions, but what is it exactly?

Fascia Explained
In the simplest of terms, fascia is the stringy, fluid, gelatinous tissue that fills all the empty spaces between our cells. Its weblike nature envelops muscles and muscle fibers, and protectively surrounds internal organs from head to toe. Fascia, also known as connective tissue, provides the structural and mechanical framework of the body, allowing tissues to slide and glide against each other during movement. Some say fascia literally holds the body together.
To help you better imagine this tissue, think back to the last time you cleaned and skinned a chicken breast before putting it in the frying pan. During that process, you likely saw the bird’s fascia clinging to the skin as you pulled it away from the muscle beneath.
Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, a French surgeon and pioneer in tendon repair, decided to look closer at fascia in the living human body. What he found and documented while working on surgical patients over the last 20 years is nothing short of amazing. His photographs, shot with a video-endoscope and extreme magnification, tell a story of tissue interconnectedness and continuity within the human body that anatomists never fully realized before.
What Guimberteau also found is that “the effect of manual therapy is mechanically observable, indubitable, and undeniable” on both the fascia and on cells’ shape and mobility. Which means what? That massage you just received was hard at work nurturing and soothing all those connections within the body, even at great distances from the original site of touch, and with profound effects we’re not even fully aware of yet.

A New Frontier
With the work of Guimberteau and others, fascia is being talked about a lot these days as researchers begin to understand the enormity of its presence within the human body. In fact, as this body of inquiry grows, it’s certain that fascia’s many secrets will start to unfold, including its role in discovering new pathways to injury recovery, pain relief, and functional movement.
It wasn’t that long ago that fascia was seen as unimportant, often cut away, tossed out, and forgotten by anatomists during dissections and research. Some liken today’s new understanding of fascia as the precipice to something even bigger.
“Our understanding of the body is about to go through a radical shift,” says integrative bodywork educator and author Thomas Myers. “Everything we ‘know’ about how our mechanics work—that we have 600 muscles that work via tendons over separate ligaments that limit joint movement—has been a good model, but it is inadequate. In fact, these are all elements of one integrated system—the fascial system.”
Myers says with this new knowledge of fascia, and the body of research that is inevitably underway as a result, today’s children will grow to understand the mechanics of the body and its movement in a totally different way from how we learned it.  

For more on fascia, read this series of articles:

Karrie Osborn is senior editor at Body Sense.