What Is Fascia? Why It May Cause Muscle Pain + How To Release It

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Depending on your familiarity with anatomy, you probably are well-versed in your knowledge of bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, all of which are important components of the musculoskeletal system.

However, there are other types of tissue that surround your muscles and joints, such as cartilage and fascia.

Although most athletes have a vague understanding of fascia tissue, many aren’t entirely sure what fascia is, the function of fascia, if muscle fascia is the only type of fascia, and how to keep fascia tissue healthy.

So, what is fascia? As fascia is one of the most abundant and important types of connective tissue, in this article, we will cover the basics of fascia, from the fascia definition and fascia anatomy to how to treat fascia injuries.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Fascia?
  • Fascia Inflammation, Pain, and Stiffness
  • What Is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?
  • How to Release Tight Fascia

Let’s jump in!

A person rolling their heel.

What Is Fascia?

Let’s start with a basic fascia definition. Surprisingly, even among the medical community, fascia is still relatively poorly defined.

Fascia is a nearly ubiquitous type of connective tissue in the body that can be found surrounding every muscle, organ, blood vessel, bone, and nerve. Not only does the fascia surround each structure, but it helps hold each of these tissues in place.

The thickness and structural characteristics of fascia anatomy can vary depending on the location in the body and the function of the fascia in that area. 

However, no matter where the fascia is located, it is mostly composed of collagen fibers, much like tendons and ligaments, which are two other types of connective tissues in the musculoskeletal system.

A person scraping foot fascia.

Additionally, fascia contains nerves, so tightness or injury to this connective tissue can cause pain. 

Like muscle tissue, fascia can tighten up, which can not only cause discomfort and pain but can limit mobility

This often happens when the fascia thickens or becomes sticky. Even in areas where fascia is thin, the tissue is composed of multiple layers of tissue.

A liquid called hyaluronan lubricates the spaces between the layers. This fluid can dry up or thicken, causing too much friction between the layers. Then, knots, tightness, pain, and poor mobility can develop.

In certain areas of the body, the fascia is denser and stiffer, and in others, it is thinner and stretchier, but even the denser fascia is designed to stretch as you move.

A person holding their foot which is radiating in pain.

Fascia Inflammation, Pain, and Stiffness

Normal, healthy fascia is slippery, smooth, and flexible. However, fascia can stiffen up and develop adhesions. 

The tissue can become gummy and crinkly rather than silky and smooth, and if the layers are no longer coated by lubricating hyaluronan, they can get stuck on one another and kink up when you move rather than gliding and stretching seamlessly.

There are various factors that can deteriorate healthy fascia into a state of disease and dysfunction or one characterized by fascia inflammation.

The primary factors that can cause fascia inflammation or lead to unhealthy tissue quality and functionality are trauma/injury, inactivity, or overuse.

Trauma might include anything from surgery to an acute injury that damages the structural integrity of the fascia, either causing an overstretching or tearing of some of the layers.

A runner on the ground holding his thigh.

Interestingly, although two opposite sides of the coin, a sedentary lifestyle and being highly active can also cause deterioration or dysfunction in the fascia or can increase the risk of developing adhesions.

When you are too inactive, the fascia surrounding your muscles is not stretched and mobilized enough, and the hyaluronan can dry up, causing the sheets of fibrous connective tissue to stiffen and contract.

This can limit the degree of permissible stretch and can limit mobility.

Repetitive movements that involve using the same muscle groups over and over stretch all overlying facia over and over as a result. This can overwork the tissue and cause a thinning, overstretching, and potential tearing of some of the fibers that constitute the layers.

Inflammation can develop around and in between the layers of fascia and between the fascia and muscle that it is surrounding. Because a dense network of nerves innervates fascia, these types of fascial injuries can cause significant pain in addition to limiting functional mobility. 

A person stretching an aching foot.

For example, runners often develop plantar fasciitis, which is an inflammation of the thick band of fascia that runs from the calcaneus (heel bone) along the sole of the foot to the bases of the metatarsal bones.

As this fascia becomes inflamed with overuse, it will stiffen up and swell, causing pain with weight-bearing and reducing the ease with which you can smoothly transition from heel to toe-off when running.

The iliotibial band, or IT band, is another common area of fascia that can become irritated or inflamed with repetitive activities such as running and cycling.

This is a long, relatively thick band of elastic fascia that runs from your hip down the outside of your leg to your knee.

Tightness, knots, inflammation, and adhesions can develop in the fascia that result in pain and potentially even difficulty achieving a full and smooth running stride or cycling pedal stroke.

A person holding their thigh.

What Is Myofascial Pain Syndrome?

Adhesions in the fascia can get worse over time if steps are not taken to properly restore functional mobility and tissue health to the fascia.

As the health quality of your fascia in a trouble area worsens, the fascia can compress and even contort the muscle that it is surrounding. When this occurs, you can develop muscle knots, which are hard, tender areas or nodules that are referred to as myofascial trigger points.

When these tender bumps and knots of tissue are pressed or compressed, they can refer pain to adjacent areas or radiate pain across a widespread region.

Some people develop a condition known as myofascial pain syndrome, in which the trigger points cause pain during movement when the trigger point is palpated or compressed, and in other, seemingly unrelated parts of the body (referred pain). 

Ultimately, myofascial pain syndrome is thought to develop because the adhesions and stiffness in the fascia have become so significant that it is compressing the underlying muscle tissue and has contorted some muscle fibers. 

Trigger points develop, which can also irritate nerves due to increased pressure or compression on the nerves. As a result, pain may be experienced at distant sites along the same nerve or adjacent nerves.

A person foam rolling their it band.

How to Release Tight Fascia

There are a variety of potentially effective physical therapy modalities that can help treat myofascial pain syndrome and restore functional health to your fascia.

For example, physical therapy modalities such as dry needling, the Graston technique, ART therapy, electromyostimulation, pulsed ultrasound, and TENS can all potentially be incorporated into treating myofascial injuries.

A physical therapist can also help you identify potential muscle imbalances, biomechanical issues, or dysfunctional movement patterns that contributed to the development of an injury or inflammation in your fascia and underlying muscle tissue.

This is an important component in the healthy recovery and rehabilitation program for myofascial pain syndrome or other injuries to the fascia, such as plantar fasciitis and IT band syndrome, so that you can correct any contributing factors for your injury and prevent future recurrences.

A person foam rolling their calves.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, fascia tends to respond well to mobility, so even seemingly simple at-home treatments like self-myofascial release using a foam roller or trigger point compression tool may be helpful.

Using a foam roller, for instance, can provide a form of fascia massage or fascia stretching of sorts, helping to elongate and mobilize the inflamed and contracted fascia.

Indeed, studies have found that self-myofascial release using a foam roller can be an effective means of improving muscle flexibility in long-distance runners.

Stretching, staying active by doing any physical activity that does not exacerbate the pain, yoga, massage therapy, and acupuncture can also be helpful treatments for myofascial pain syndrome and general discomfort or pain associated with adhesions in your fascia or a loss of tissue stretch and pliability.

Heating and icing an area of injury can also be helpful.

If you are new to foam rolling for fascia massage and fascia stretching, and self-myofascial release, you can find instructional videos on YouTube, such as this one.

You can also release tight fascia using a lacrosse ball, as demonstrated in this video.

A person rolling their fascia with a small ball on the underneath of their foot.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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