I never dreamed that I would bestow scientific respectability on this ancient/new age practice. But here we are. Last October, the first Congress of Fascia Research convened at Harvard. No, it has nothing to do with Fascism or anything political.
What is fascia?
Fascia is the soft part of the body’s connective tissue system. It underlies the skin, envelopes our organs in a lacy blanket, connects in a thousand strands one muscle fiber to another, forms a sheath around bones and tendons—in short, it is present throughout the body.
Given such ubiquitous distribution, it is quite surprising how neglected this organ system (yes, it can be viewed as such) is in biology and medicine. In research, scientists study the mechanical properties of the collagen fibers that are major constituents of fascia, or the fibroblasts, cells that populate fascial tissues. But they never talk to each other, they rarely collaborate—which is a crying shame.
The reports are fun to read. In addition to the usual suspects of biomechanic engineers, cell biologists, and connective tissue biochemists, there was a strong contingent of chiropractors, Rolfers, and people of indeterminate affiliation speaking of “aura”. But the serious stuff predominated, and it was truly interesting.
For instance, it was shown that repetitive movement along a given plane kills the fibroblasts, whereas alternating or circular motion (in other words, simulating massage) spares the fibroblasts. Stretching of the fibers causes the fibroblasts to secrete more collagen, which is important in rejuvenating tissues and healing of injuries. A trove of information, too much to cover in a short posting, has been uncovered. Fibromyalgia has been discussed, and more research on this vexing condition has been initiated as a result of the networking that took place. Other areas, that haven’t been discussed, are bound to surface at the nest Congress in Amsterdam, in 2009. For instance, the effect of fascial manipulation on the brain, specifically the reward circuits. Or the effect of manipulation on the immune response. I think we are witnessing the birth of a new branch of biomedicine that may one day give legitimacy to the belief that deep tissue massage is more than skin deep.
In the meantime, it is now OK to visit your favorite masseur/masseuse in broad daylight. It’s legit.