Fascia as a body-wide communication system


Fascia as a body-wide communication system


This chapter begins with some evolutionary considerations regarding communication in the fascia and other components of the extracellular matrix and within the cells that maintain them. These considerations lay a foundation for exploring the nature of non-neural and nonhormonal communications in the mammalian organism, as well as how the fascia interacts with the brain and therefore with consciousness.

When we think of communication in the human body we usually first think of nerves and synapses. The purpose of the above quotation is to remind us of the existence of evolutionarily ancient communication systems that are present in single celled organisms that are entirely lacking in nerves or synapses. How does a single-cell creature, such as a paramecium, lead such a sophisticated life? How does it hunt living prey, respond to lights, sounds, and smells, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system? Bray (2009) proposes that cells are built of molecular circuits that perform logical operations, as electronic devices do. He also suggests that the computational properties of cells provide the basis of all the distinctive properties of living systems, including the ability to embody in their internal structure an image of the world around them. These concepts, which are supported by the information to follow, account for the adaptability, responsiveness, and intelligence of cells and organisms. These properties also extend into the connective tissue terrain surrounding all cells in the mammalian organism.

Prokaryotes – organisms lacking a cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles, even those as simple as flagellated bacteria – are likewise capable of sensing and responding to various environmental stimuli and moving toward or away from them as necessary for their survival. In this historical and evolutionary context, the nervous system is seen as a relatively new “invention” that functions in cooperation with an older communication system that has had a much longer period of evolutionary refinement – the body-wide communication system that is the topic of this chapter.

Because of the relative ease with which the nervous system can be studied, and because of its obvious importance, the brain has been studied with a vast array of analytical tools, and we know enough about it to fill many books and journals. However, one does not have to dig very deep into this literature to find that there are many unanswered questions. For example, the recent discovery that the connective tissue cells in the brain also form a communication system has returned the whole of neuroscience to the drawing board. In mammals, connective tissue cells called glia (the Greek word γλια means “glue”) constitute some 50% of the volume of the brain. Decades of research have required revision of the traditional view that glial cells function purely for mechanical and nutritional support. We now know that glial cells interact morphologically, biochemically, and physiologically with neurons throughout the brain, modulate neuronal activity, and influence behavior (Castellano López & Nieto-Sampedro 2001; Koob 2009). A new cutting edge branch of both neuroscience and fascial research has been born, based on the relationship between connective tissue cells and neuronal processes. Those who study the fascia as an all-pervasive system, as will be defined below, will recognize that one of the most vital relationships in the body has to be the relationship between the connective tissue and the nervous system.

Some biologists regard the modern mammalian cell as a microorganism (e.g., Puck 1972). Mammalian cells contain miniature “musculoskeletal systems” composed of microtubules (the “bones” of the cell), microfilaments (the “muscles” of the cell), and other molecules that can act as a sort of “connective tissue” within the cell. These cellular components enable cells to change shape and to migrate from place to place. In recent years it has been discovered that bacteria also contain a number of cytoskeletal structures that are homologs of the three major types of eukaryotic cytoskeletal proteins, actin, tubulin, and intermediate filament proteins (summarized by Shih & Rothfield 2006).

The cytoskeleton is often regarded as the “nervous system” of the cell. The extracellular coats of the “primitive” microorganisms evolved into the mammalian extracellular matrix. Specifically, the extracellular sugar polymer coatings of individual bacteria, viruses, and protozoa extended the “reach” of these ancient organisms into their environment and formed the oldest and most pervasive information and defense system in nature. The connective tissue is the modern expression of these ancient cell coats.

This chapter is an exploration of the concept that these ancient communication systems persist throughout the modern mammalian organism and that their existence helps explain a number of phenomena that are difficult to account for by neural mechanisms. The inquiry has been guided and inspired in large measure by conversations with a broad range of bodywork, energetic, and movement therapists who have daily and remarkable encounters with these systems and who have therefore developed a keen curiosity about their nature.

The fascia

Findley and Schleip (2009) have defined fascia broadly to include all of the soft fibrous connective tissues that permeate the human body. Their definition has the important feature of blurring the arbitrary demarcation lines between various components of the connective tissue so that we can view the fascia as “one interconnected tensional network that adapts its fiber arrangement and density according to local tensional demands.” Pischinger (2007) describes the fascial system as the largest system in the body as it is the only system that touches all of the other systems. Finando and Finando (2011) summarize evidence that the ancient acupuncture meridian system shares many structural, functional, and clinical characteristics with the fascial system. Specifically, like the acupuncture meridian system, the fascia may be viewed as a single organ, a unified whole, the environment in which all body systems function. There is a virtually one-to-one correspondence between the therapeutic approaches to the fascia and to acupuncture. For example, Pischinger (2007) states that needle puncture produces a reaction in the entire intercellular–extracellular matrix. The diversity of conditions that respond to acupuncture treatment may be explained by a review of the recently understood properties of the fascia. The involvement of the fascia in dysfunction and disease is pervasive. It is believed that, to some extent, the fascia will necessarily be involved in every type of human pathology (Paoletti 2006; Pischinger 2007). The fascia is the one system that connects to every aspect of human physiology. Langevin (2006) and Langevin and Yandow (2002) suggest that the fascia is a metasystem, connecting and influencing all other systems, a concept with the potential to change our core understanding of human physiology.

These are valuable perspectives as they help address the increasing interest in whole-systems phenomena that distinguish holistic manual therapies from methods that focus on parts rather than wholes. Experience often shows that formerly intractable health issues are resolved by taking a broader view of a patient’s problems. Stated differently, “There are no local problems” (Spencer 2007), and the corollary, “There are no local treatments.”

Along with these holistic perspectives come questions such as:


These issues are related to the theme of this book, since much of the success of modern manual therapies stems from a willingness on the part of practitioners to unwind a patient’s entire traumatic history, including all of the resulting compensations, which is very different from treating a current complaint.

Moreover, the way the interconnected fiber systems of the fascia adapt to both local and global forces takes us to one of the key unsolved issues in medicine and biology. This issue is the mechanism by which an organism develops from an embryo into an adult, and the equally important mechanism by which the adult organism references the embryonic formative processes when needed to restore the original structure after injury or disease. While there may be an impression that the mechanisms involved in morphogenesis are well known, they are not. Biological patterns persist in the face of changes in physical activity and trauma, but previous widely-taught ideas of how this is accomplished have been discovered to be inaccurate:

To thoroughly explore wound healing, the human body’s capacity to adapt to and recover from stress and trauma and other essential biological phenomena, we extend the definition of fascia to include the denser parts of the connective tissues, cartilage and bone, whose fiber systems are continuous with the fascial elements in the soft tissues. The fiber systems in the fascia are embedded in a polyelectrolyte ground substance, and what distinguishes bone from soft tissues is the ossification of the ground substance. The fiber systems within bone are continuous with those in the soft tissues, for example at the places where tendons and ligaments insert into bone.

Tracing the kinetic chain through the living matrix

Since our exploration will also go beyond gross anatomy to the level of tissues, cells, organelles, nuclei, DNA, and other molecules, we introduce an even more encompassing concept, the living matrix. The living matrix includes the connective tissue and fascial systems as defined above as well as the trans-membrane proteins (integrins and adhesion complexes), cytoskeletons, nuclear matrices, and DNA.Figure 2.5.1 illustrates the living matrix concept.

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Aug 24, 2016 | Posted by in ORTHOPEDIC | Comments Off on Fascia as a body-wide communication system

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