Fascial stretch therapy is a type of manual therapy that manipulates muscles and the soft tissue within and around the muscles and skin (the fascia). For a long time the human body and its biomechanics were studied without function of the fascia. When experiments and testing was done, the ample soft tissues were just discarded and disregarded.
How could so much substance in our body serve no purpose? Turns out it does. Just like the musculo-skeletal system, the soft tissue and fascial systems holds great significance in the way we move and navigate life.
Our Fascia encompasses our entire body. It is around almost every structure inside the body. In fact, each muscle fiber we have is covered in a sheath of fascia, and all these fibers together create the muscles themselves. Then, our musculoskeletal is covered in huge nets of fascia. To picture fascia, you can picture tightly linked nets, or spiderwebs. These nets help keep everything in our body in place and moving efficiently. It keeps organs safe and biomechanics regulated. In a situation where we get an injury, our fascial network adapts. For example, with a low back injury, our brain will tell our hips that it is unsafe, scary, or pain-inducing to move in specific ways. So we inherently start to compensate by limiting movement. We may start leaning over to one side when we sit and stand to take weight and movement away from the site of injury. Our fascia will then start to tighten up to help with movement restriction. It is helpful for the time being, but once we are finished healing, the fascia doesn’t just loosen up. We must train our bodies to move with a full range of motion again. With repetitive manipulation of fascia, our bodies start to return to normal. And that is why fascial stretch therapy can be so beneficial for healing.
Fascial stretch therapy moves the body in a trajectory that follows major lines of soft tissues (or fascia) in our body. The person getting treated will feel muscles and fascia being stretched and moved in a range of motion that is important in functional mobility.
The goal of Fascial Stretch Therapy is:
- 1) Stretch muscles
- 2) Respect help elongation of the fascial lines
- 3) Move joints in a full range of motion where one should be mobile
- 4) Stimulate the nervous / parasympathetic nervous system to help the body move more freely.
Just like with massage, this manual therapy is helpful with muscle recovery. Athletes and those who are active will be able to better heal from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and achy or fatigued muscles. Folks with joint pain benefit from passively going through a full range of motion at their joints. Fascial stretch therapy uses light traction to safely open up joints including our major hip and shoulder joints to help improve movement and recovery.
Lastly, people who have lingering issues with injuries, pains, and certain neurological disorders are greatly eased with fascial stretch therapy. Since our soft tissues are closely tied to our nervous system, (neurons are in fact, soft tissue themselves) we can help re-wire our brain-body connection by our soft tissues being safely moved through a range you felt was limited prior.
In fascial stretch therapy one can expect an interospective experience of interoception. Ok That was just some fun word play. However, the person experiencing the therapy will be feeling their body move through many different movements by the practitioner. The body on the table is instructed to remain passive and not use any muscular activation to assist the practitioner. Clothes do not need to be removed, though traction from skin to skin contact is important. Mostly, there just needs to be access to the feet and arms. It is more important for you to feel safe and comfortable, so socks can stay on if that is a preference. Ideally, the client feels a stretch sensation at about a 7/10 in most of the stretches. We all know how stretching can feel unpleasant sometimes. This is that type of intense, but needed stretch sensation.
That is where breath comes into play. Our nervous system is easily regulated by our breath. Meaning – our soft tissue sensation can be regulated by breath as well. Yes, the stretch may be slightly uncomfortable, but being able to regulate, trust, and follow the discomfort in our bodies is very beneficial to forming a better relationship with ourselves, our fitness, and health.
Almost everybody can benefit from FST, in fact many health professionals (physical therapists, massage therapists, personal trainers etc) use a tiny bit of these techniques in their practice. People who are not used to being mobile in many movements will immediately feel looser and a bit upbeat (from the stretching and nervous system effects). It is common for people who lack certain mobility to even feel minimally sore (but in a good way, like things have been worked that need to be) the next day or two.
Athletes and people with fitness/physical goals will also love fascial stretch therapy. There is saying in the fitness world – “gain it, then train it”. When the saying rhymes, you know it is true. This means that first we lengthen, loosen, or mobilize parts of our bodies and then we use training to inform our mind/body connection that this is our new safe range of motion. For example, manipulating the femur bone away from its socket and stretching glute muscles can help us access a deeper squat. Then training our bodies to access this deeper squat – especially with weight – will help us keep this new range of motion. So pro-athletes in the outfield of a baseball game will be able to access balls rolling past them on the ground easier by being ready in a mobile and deep squat.
The final talking-point towards this kind of manual therapy is the assisted stretching concept. Our bodies have the proprioceptors called golgi tendon organs or GTOs. These, and other proprioceptors, have the job of telling our bodies “enough, do not lengthen these muscle fibers anymore or something will get injured”. These proprioceptors are what causes our bodies to shake, feel discomfort, and limit ourselves in stretches. When we stretch ourselves, we are more connected to these GTOs and way more responsive to them. We limit ourselves when (static) stretching. When you are being manually stretched by another human, there is less sensation with the GTOs. In fact, there are ways to “trick” and “turn off” these proprioceptors, but is only safe and easy to do so when there is a trained professional.
Also, when we stretch ourselves, we tend to activate parts of our bodies to stabilize while stretching the desired area. This activation of muscles restricts movement in places like the pelvis, and really limits how much benefit we can get from the stretch. Fascial stretch therapy uses stability straps plus further stability from the practitioner to allow your body to be receptive, limp, and mobile in the manipulation.
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