the Myofascial System

The myofascial system is much more than a frame for our organs and muscles. Recent studies have shown that the large network of connective tissue also acts as a sensory organ that influences posture, movement, flexibility and even our emotions.

What is the Myofascial System?

For much of recent medical history, the myofascial system has been overlooked. Fascia is a thin membrane of fibrous connective tissue which lies between our skin, muscles and organs. Scientists and doctors assumed it played a small role in the function of our bodies, simply holding things in place like another layer of skin. In recent years, however, there has been a great deal of interest and research that has revealed that the fascia plays a much more important role in helping the body function and operate as a whole.

The myofascial system is much more than a frame for our organs and muscles. Recent studies have shown that the large network of connective tissue also acts as a sensory organ that influences posture, movement, flexibility and even our emotions. Since it surrounds many nerves, muscles, veins and vessels in our body, the fascia also interacts with our musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, nervous, immune and digestive systems. Therefore it has a direct impact on blood pressure, nerve communication and respiratory and digestive function as well.

How is it that such a complex, interconnected part of our body went overlooked for so long? For centuries the fascia has been in a convenient blind spot, both literally and figuratively. Traditional anatomy studied organs and systems independent of one another, and as a result, fascia was disregarded in the first few centuries of medicine. Once dissection was introduced to the practice of medicine in the 13th century, the fascia was noticed but considered unimportant. During dissections, it was generally removed and set aside in order to better study the organs, muscles and bones within the body. In more recent years, the fascia was incorrectly labeled as inert, simple “packing material” with no significant physiological purpose or function.(8)

None of these historical assumptions could be further from the truth, and recent advances in medical imaging technology have finally given professionals the ability to study the myofascial system in living people. Alongside a rising interest in alternative and holistic medicine, a great deal of attention and research has been directed to the subject, leading to a reconsideration of the myofascial system and its role in our body.

The Myofascial System's Role

Since becoming a focal point of medical research, a great deal has been revealed about the myofascial system’s role and ability to support other key systems within the body. As mentioned, the fascia envelopes everything beneath the skin and as a result, works interdependently with every system in our body. Fascia helps these systems work more efficiently and in conjunction with one another. Although research on fascia has only just begun, the findings have already provided enlightening results.

The myofascial system’s main role is that of a bridge, in a sense, in that it helps different parts of the body work together to function and move in a cohesive manner. For example, it integrates mechanical force and sensory information by transmitting force and pressure across different muscles while also providing sensory feedback to the nervous system.(6) This meeting of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems allows one to balance and coordinate their movements more effectively, enhancing the body’s mechanical efficiency. Considering as much, the myofascial system is developing a large role in sports medicine.

Another fascinating ability of the fascia is how it links the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Not only does the fascia provide support and protection, but it also facilitates blood flow and regulates internal fluid dynamics. In other words, when a muscle contracts or expands, the fascia responds by adjusting the flow of blood to the region.(10)

In athletes, a healthy myofascial system equates to more power, speed and precision in their movements. Additionally, a healthy fascial system more effectively distributes loads evenly across muscles and muscle groups, lowering the risk of injury while exerting force.(11) Since the fascia wraps around and layers between muscles, it allows for smoother, frictionless movement, contributing to flexibility and a normal range of motion. Research has also begun to suggest the Autonomic Nervous System responds to stimuli in the fascia, which can in turn directly impact stress levels and mental health as well as the body’s ability to heal through regulation of the flight or fight response.(9)

Maintaining & Enhancing Fascia health with Acupuncture & TCM

The body’s systems are complex and interdependent, and a holistic approach is often needed for optimal health. Considering its intricate relationship with the other systems of the human body, fascia is no different. In fact, emerging research indicates that the myofascial system is the anatomical basis for acupuncture points and meridians, the channels through which the body’s vital energy circulates. The research points to two concepts. First, the meridians are most likely bundles of veins, vessels and nerves contained within the fascia which surrounds all organs and muscles. Another theory is that ‘qi’ or ‘energy’ flows via nerve signals, hormones and chemicals which travel through our nervous and circulatory systems.(6,7)

Traditional Chinese Medicine has a long history of describing the body’s integrated systems, including what we now understand as the myofascial system. The concept of ‘chi’ or ‘qi’, a form of life energy which flows through the body, has long been at the heart of TCM. As our understanding of the myofascial system deepens, the parallels with these ancient concepts become clear.

Acupuncture works by inserting fine needles into specific points on the body. These points, located along meridians, are now recognized as being interconnected through the fascia. By targeting these areas, acupuncture is able to stimulate the flow of ‘qi’, or in terms of modern medicine, improve circulation, promote the release of hormones and neurotransmitters, and trigger responses from the nervous system.

In terms of myofascial health, acupuncture is used to relieve tension and restrictions within the fascial network. When the fascia becomes tight or restricted, it can impact various bodily functions leading to pain, limited mobility and increasing risk of injury.(6, 11) By stimulating acupuncture points, practitioners can help to release these restrictions, allowing the fascia to return to a more relaxed and flexible state. This can lead to an overall improvement in musculoskeletal function, increased range of motion, and pain reduction.(6, 11) In addition to acupuncture, other aspects of TCM also play a role in promoting myofascial health. Techniques such as cupping and Gua Sha work directly on the fascial layers, helping to release tension and improve circulation. 

The myofascial system is now accepted as a vital part of our body’s network, influencing every aspect of our physical health and well-being. By viewing the body as an interconnected whole, both acupuncture and TCM offer effective methods for maintaining and enhancing the health of this crucial system. As the scientific understanding of the myofascial system continues to grow, the wisdom of these ancient practices is increasingly validated, offering exciting new avenues for holistic health and athletic performance enhancement.

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Sources

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  2. van der Wal, J. (2009, December 7). The architecture of the connective tissue in the musculoskeletal system-an often overlooked functional parameter as to proprioception in the locomotor apparatus. International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091473/  
  3. Langevin, H. M., & Huijing, P. A. (2009, December 7). Communicating about fascia: History, pitfalls, and recommendations. International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091474/
  4. Zügel, M., Maganaris, C. N., Wilke, J., Jurkat-Rott, K., Klingler, W., Wearing, S. C., Findley, T., Barbe, M. F., Steinacker, J. M., Vleeming, A., Bloch, W., Schleip, R., & Hodges, P. W. (2018, December). Fascial Tissue Research in sports medicine: From molecules to tissue adaptation, injury and diagnostics: Consensus statement. British journal of sports medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6241620/
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  6. Bai, Y., Wang, J., Wu, J.-P., Dai, J.-X., Sha, O., Tai Wai Yew, D., Yuan, L., & Liang, Q.-N. (2011). Review of evidence suggesting that the fascia network could be the anatomical basis for acupoints and meridians in the human body. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3092510/
  7. Bianco, G. (2019, August 27). Fascial neuromodulation: An emerging concept linking acupuncture, fasciology, osteopathy and Neuroscience. European journal of translational myology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6767840/
  8. Suarez-Rodriguez, V., Fede, C., Pirri, C., Petrelli, L., Loro-Ferrer, J. F., Rodriguez-Ruiz, D., De Caro, R., & Stecco, C. (2022, May 18). Fascial Innervation: A systematic review of the literature. International journal of molecular sciences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9143136/
  9. Helbig, C. (2020, April 29). Understanding the fascia and the nervous system. Empowered Heart Therapies. https://empoweredheart.com.au/blog/fascia-and-nervous-system
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  11. Schleip, R., Gabbiani, G., Wilke, J., Naylor, I., Hinz, B., Zorn, A., Jäger, H., Breul, R., Schreiner, S., & Klingler, W. (2019, April 2). Fascia is able to actively contract and may thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics: A histochemical and Mechanographic investigation. Frontiers in physiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6455047/