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If muscle pliability is the goal, densification is the enemy. When people start to feel stiff and restricted in their movement and range of motion, they may be told about having “adhesions” and scar tissue.  These vague descriptions aren’t necessarily wrong, but they don’t give the complete picture either. 

The scientific concept that underlies some of this is densification.  This article explores densification, why it occurs, and how to change it so you can move better.

Sliding and gliding

The fascia, muscle, and other connective tissues in the body are all connected and work together to affect range of motion, flexibility, and elasticity.

The fascia is a sheet of connective tissue that surrounds and supports muscles and other tissues in the body. It is made up of fibers that are arranged in a specific pattern. Fascia, connective tissue, and muscle can be thought of as a series of layers that slide over each other.

The movement of these layers can have a significant impact on your range of motion, flexibility, and elasticity. For example, when a muscle contracts, the fascia surrounding the muscle can also contract, pulling on the surrounding tissues and contributing to movement.

Similarly, when a muscle stretches, the fascia surrounding the muscle can also stretch, allowing for a greater range of motion.

The elasticity of the fascia and other connective tissues is also important for flexibility and movement. When the fascia and other connective tissues are elastic and flexible, they are able to stretch and move more easily, allowing for a greater range of motion.

On the other hand, when the fascia and other connective tissues are dense and inflexible, they may limit range of motion and flexibility.

The Importance of Fascia

Fascia is really important to moving well, so its worth building a little more understanding. It is a connective tissue found throughout the body, surrounding muscles, bones, and organs. Fascia plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to move and function, as it helps to transmit force, maintain posture, and support the structure of the body.

Despite its importance, fascia is often overlooked in discussions of human physiology, as it is not as well-understood as other tissues such as muscles and bones.

Fascia is made up of cells, fibers, and extracellular matrix. It is found throughout the body, and it is particularly abundant in areas where movement occurs, such as the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

It is also found surrounding organs, blood vessels, and nerve fibers, providing support and protection.

Fascia has several key functions in the body. It helps to transmit force between muscles and bones, allowing for movement.

It also plays a role in maintaining posture and supporting the structure of the body. Fascia helps to keep organs in place and provides protection against injury.

The Enemy: Densification

However, fascia can also become densified, a process in which the tissue becomes stiff and inflexible.

This can occur for a variety of reasons, including trauma, inflammation, and poor posture. When fascia becomes densified, it can lead to a range of health problems, including muscle pain, poor mobility, and poor posture.

This can make it more difficult to perform movements, and it can lead to muscle imbalances and an increased risk of injury. Densification of fascia can also affect the organs, as it can limit their ability to move and function properly.

Causes of Densification

Fascia can become densified for a variety of reasons, both physiological and biomechanical. Some of the main factors that can contribute to densification of fascia include:

  1. Trauma: Physical trauma, such as a sports injury or car accident, can cause the fascia to become densified as a result of inflammation and scar tissue formation.
  2. Inflammation: Chronic inflammation can lead to scar tissue formation and densification of the fascia. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including poor diet, stress, and certain medical conditions.
  3. Poor posture: Poor posture can lead to imbalances in the muscles and fascia, leading to densification of the tissue. This can occur as a result of prolonged periods of sitting or standing in a poor posture, or as a result of muscle imbalances caused by other factors.
  4. Overuse: Repetitive movements or prolonged periods of inactivity can lead to densification of the fascia, particularly in the muscles and tendons.

In terms of the physiological and biomechanical mechanisms that cause densification of the fascia, it is believed that densification occurs as a result of changes in the extracellular matrix (ECM) and the cells that make up the fascia.

The Extracellular Matrix

The ECM is a complex network of proteins and other molecules that surrounds and supports cells in the body. It is an important component of connective tissue, including fascia, and it plays a crucial role in the structure and function of tissues.

There are several physiological changes that can occur in the ECM that can lead to a loss of elasticity and flexibility in the fascia. Some of the main changes that can occur in the ECM that may lead to densification of the fascia include:

  1. Decreased synthesis of ECM components: The synthesis of ECM components, such as collagen and elastin, can decrease with age or as a result of certain medical conditions. This can lead to a loss of elasticity and flexibility in the fascia.
  2. Decreased matrix turnover: Matrix turnover is the process by which the ECM is broken down and replaced by new tissue. If matrix turnover is reduced, the ECM can become stiffer and less flexible, leading to densification of the fascia.
  3. Decreased blood flow: Blood flow plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and function of the ECM. Decreased blood flow to the area can lead to a loss of elasticity and flexibility in the fascia.

These changes can lead to a loss of elasticity and flexibility in the fascia, which can result in densification. Additionally, densification of the fascia can lead to imbalances in the muscles and joints, which can further contribute to poor function and mobility.

Pliability and Sponges

Tissue work and movement help wring fluids from tissues

One way to understand how muscle contraction, and tissue work affect tissue hydration is through the a sponge & water analogy. In this analogy, the sponge represents the tissues in the body, and the water represents the fluid within the tissues.

When the sponge is dry, it is stiff and inflexible. It’s much like how tissues may become stiff and inflexible when they are dehydrated. When water is added to the sponge, it becomes more hydrated and pliable. Similarly this is like how tissues may become more hydrated and pliable when they are properly hydrated.

Similarly, when a muscle contracts, it can squeeze the tissues surrounding it, much like how pressing on a sponge can squeeze out the water. This can help to promote the circulation of fluid within the tissues, helping to maintain their hydration and pliability.

On the other hand, if a muscle does not contract properly or is overworked, it may become dehydrated and less pliable. This can lead to a reduction in range of motion and flexibility. Tissues are less able to stretch and move easily.

The sponge and water analogy also applies to tissue work. A manual therapist using their hands or tools also can help push the water out of the tissues. Circulation returns as the pressure is released.

How do you improve tissue stiffness?

Fascial densification however is not a one way street.  It can be improved and motion regained. 

However, its important to note that its easier to maintain good fascial glide. Its harder than it is to regain it after its lost.

So be proactive in maintaining your tissues though these strategies.

Move Well, Move Often

Movement and exercise can affect tissue densification in a number of ways. In general, regular movement and exercise helps maintain the elasticity and flexibility of the fascia.

One of the main ways that movement and exercise affects tissue is by improving blood flow to the area. Proper blood flow is important for maintaining the health and function of the fascia and other connective tissues. It provides them with the oxygen and nutrients they need to function properly.

quality movement supports tissue health
Quality movement through full ranges of motion helps prevent tissue densification

Additionally, movement and exercise can lengthen the fascia under tension, improving its flexibility and reducing densification. The ECM is composed of various fibers, including collagen fibers, elastin fibers, and proteoglycans. Dynamic movement in three dimensions helps align these fibers in a more organized and functional manner.

This can be particularly important for people who spend long periods of time sitting or standing in the same position. Thats because these activities can lead to imbalances in the muscles and fascia and contribute to densification.

Tissue Work

There are several manual tissue work techniques that may be used to improve the function and mobility of human fascia. This typically includes hands-on techniques to manipulate the fascia and surrounding tissues. The goal is to improve flexibility, reduce densification, and improve overall function. Some examples of manual therapy techniques that may be used to improve fascia function and mobility include:

Studies have shown that tissue work can be effective in improving flexibility and reducing tissue density. For example, a study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found that deep tissue therapy was effective in reducing muscle density and improving flexibility in individuals with chronic low back pain (Land 2013).

Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (IASTM) is a manual therapy technique that involves the use of specialized instruments to manipulate soft tissue. Some practitioners and research studies have suggested that IASTM may be effective in improving tissue densification

Here are three recent studies that support the use of Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (IASTM) to improve tissue quality and reverse fascial densification:

  1. A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy in 2021 found that IASTM was effective in reducing muscle density and improving flexibility in individuals with chronic low back pain (Land 2021).
  2. A systematic review published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy in 2019 found that IASTM was effective in improving flexibility and reducing muscle density in individuals with various musculoskeletal conditions, including plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, and chronic low back pain (Hong 2019).
  3. A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy in 2018 found that IASTM was effective in improving flexibility and reducing muscle density in individuals with knee osteoarthritis (Hong 2018).

Hydrate To Fight Tissue Densification

The ECM is composed of a large amount of water, which is important for maintaining its hydration and elasticity. Exercise and other forms of movement can help to increase the water content of the ECM, improving its hydration and elasticity.

However, that wont really help if you aren’t actually hydrating yourself with enough water daily.

Some research suggests that regular exercise may increase the production of hyaluronic acid, leading to an increase in its content within the ECM (Matsuo 2012). Hyaluronic acid is known to attract and hold water, so an increase in its content within the ECM may lead to an increase in the overall water content of the ECM.

Tissue cant slide well when dried out, so hydration is a key part of muscle pliability.

Inflammation

Inflammation can influence the densification of fascia tissue in a number of ways.  That inflammation can be localized from overuse or trauma after an injury.  That inflammation can lead to scar tissue and changes to the extra cellular matrix.

This is why treating even minor injuries is important in the long run.  Those small, injuries and changes to the fascia accumulate over time.  This is part of the “wear and tear” people experience when they are active across their lifetime.

Systemic inflammation comes from poor diet and/or a stressful lifestyle that leads to low levels of inflammation throughout the body.  This also can affect changes in blood vessels’ permeability, collagen turnover, and fiber alignment. 

So an anti-inflammatory diet can also help maintain your fascial health and the ability of tissues to slide and glide.

Summary

Densification of fascia can be particularly problematic for active individuals and athletes, as it can lead to decreased flexibility and range of motion. This can make it difficult to perform even simple movements, and it can lead to muscle imbalances and an increased risk of injury.

There are several ways to address densification of fascia and improve overall fascia health. One approach is through manual tissue, which can help to loosen and stretch the fascia. Exercise and movement can also be beneficial, as they can help to improve flexibility and reduce densification. Finally, maintaining good hydration and nutrition are important for the biochemistry of the extracellular matix and keeping down inflammation.

Maintaining your tissue pliability is the best strategy. But if you are experiencing the negative effects of densification, you can use those strategies to improve it.

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