Is it possible to stretch your connective tissue?
There is some debate amongst therapists and researchers whether it is possible to stretch fascia and whether there is actually any benefit in stretching at all. Given that fascia has a tensile strength of 2 tonnes per square inch (which is the equivalent of a panda sitting on you), there is certainly no point in trying to force your fascia to stretch.
There is also a school of thought which holds that stretching is not actually a natural physiological necessity but rather something that we humans have created to make us feel better about ourselves. When we look at animals, none of them engage in regular stretching routines. You’re not going to see a cheetah limbering up with some leg stretches before chasing an antelope.
Instead, animals (and humans) will regularly have a stretch and a yawn. This is called pandiculation and you can see it in action when your cat or dog wakes up and goes through a deliciously long whole body stretch. Animals know instinctively when to stretch and in doing so how to keep their body tissues supple and free from fascial restrictions.
Good fascial health is dependent on the whole body-wide web of the tissue being mobile and fluid. Fascia contains protein fibres – collagen which gives it strength and elastin which allows for stretchy movement; specialist cells called fibroblasts; and water. As such it is a viscoelastic tissue, ie both fluid and solid.
Fascia is arranged in a lattice-like structure of collagen fibres which respond to the demands put on the body. The collagen fibres are wavy, or ‘crimped’, and elongate and contract as we move. The fibroblast cells in the fascia are responsible for managing collagen health and will add more or re-absorb excess depending on what is required.
The viscoelasticity of fascia also means that it has the ability to change shape depending on the loads it is put under. Carrying heavy shopping bags, for example, means that the fascia and muscles in your arms and shoulders tighten and shorten to maintain this load. Put the bags down and the tissues relax and return to their normal resting shape and length.
However, do this repeatedly over a period of time and your fascia starts to adapt by thickening the collagen lattice in your arms and shoulders to keep it short and tight. This causes crosslinks to form making the lattice stick and mat together. The muscles surrounded by the thickened fascia also become stuck and lose their ability to move properly, resulting in restricted range of movement.
This principle of fascial adaptation is triggered by any repetitive movements, or even a lack of movement where the fascia thickens to hold you in place. Athletic training is no different to the demands put on the body by office work. Any load which is excessive or repeated without a counterbalancing release will result in thickened, inflamed and damaged fascia. Unfortunately this ability to create fascial restriction and imbalance is unique to humans.
Which brings us back to stretching. We know that trying to force fascia to stretch is not going to get us anywhere. However the viscoelastic properties of fascia also mean that it responds well to heat and gentle sustained pressure. This combination creates a physical change in the tissue making it more fluid, in exactly the same way that the combination of heating and stirring treacle makes it more runny. Research has shown that maintaining heat and gentle pressure for 1-5 minutes will create positive change in the collagen lattice of fascia.
The principles of effective fascial stretching
Applying the principles of viscoelasticity through stretching can create similar results:
- Stretch when you are warm – maybe after exercise, or a hot shower or bath – your fascia will then be more fluid and ready to release.
- Take it slowly – a slow progressive stretch provides the sustained tension fascia likes. You may not be able to comfortably hold a stretch for 5 minutes at first, but even 60-90 seconds will start to make a difference.
- Pay attention – think global and feel the stretch extend through the body-wide web of your fascia. Move in the stretch if you feel the urge as it will help to unwind other stuck areas.
- Be consistent – just as fascial restrictions are created by repetitive action or inaction, so fascia releases progressively. A regular daily practice will bear results, although you’re in this for the long term. Think months rather than days or weeks, especially if you are still doing whatever it was that caused the problem in the first place.
With persistence and attention to what’s going on in your body, the gentle progressive movement of your regular fascial stretching practice will help stimulate the fibroblasts to restore your fascial lattice to a healthy fluid state. Which means you’ll feel the benefits of more stretchy and pain free movement.
Find out more about fascial stretching in our Living Pain Free online video programme HERE.