There is still much to be learned about connective tissue, but its incredible role in our body is slowly coming to light. Until recently, scientists knew very little about how nerves within these areas are impacted by the condition of the surrounding tissue, and how these nerves contribute to some of our most important internal processes. Thanks to recent studies, it is now clear that deep muscular fascia are richly innervated with small fibers that can transmit pain signals. Despite this discovery, connective tissue is still often overlooked as a cause or contributing factor to musculoskeletal pain.
We now know that the nerves within connective tissue transmit pain signals to the brain
The degree to which connective tissue, and the nerves within it, also contribute to non-painful sensations, such as the feeling of pressure while stretching, is another often unconsidered area. Furthermore, the degree to which such stimuli arising from connective tissue contributes to integral internal processes like proprioception and interoception, in addition to musculoskeletal pain, is still not completely understood.
What is proprioception?
Simply put, proprioception is the body’s ability to sense movement and position. This includes sensing the position of joints as well as the tension and movement of muscles. Connective tissue plays an important role in this process. These connective tissues, also known as fascia, run throughout our bodies and are full of nerves. Fascia makes the movement of our bodies possible by allowing muscles and joints to glide smoothly. The sensations derived from this connective tissue are part of the nerve signals sent to the brain that comprise the body’s sense of balance and proprioception. Without this awareness and ability, we would not be able to walk or balance properly.
Proprioception is important for several reasons. First, it helps us to maintain balance and to avoid falling. Second, it allows us to move our bodies efficiently by helping us know where our limbs are in space. Third, proprioception helps us protect our joints from injury. When we have effective proprioception, we are less likely to experience joint injuries because we are able to sense when our joints are at risk of being damaged and thus we can adjust accordingly to protect them. Finally, proprioception is essential for coordination and motor control. Proper proprioception allows us to move our bodies in a coordinated manner, which is necessary for activities such as walking, running, and even writing.
One can easily experience their own proprioception by performing a few simple tasks. Stand on one leg with eyes opened. Once balance has been achieved, continue to stand on one leg, but then with eyes closed. Without the sense of vision, the body relies on proprioception to maintain balance. The nerves are firing impulses with information to the brain about the body. They send signals at such speed that we’re not cognizant of the action, only the sensations.
Proprioception is an essential part of balance and keeping our body safe, and is created by signals from nerves that include those within connective tissue
Increasing proprioceptive skills can help reduce injury or accidents in our daily lives, and thus it plays an important role in our wellbeing. Proprioception works faster than our visual sensory input, allowing us to perform tasks and move our bodies without looking directly at each action. This sensory input allows our movements to flow smoothly, while being conscious of our physical body and spaces.
Here are a few ways to further experience, as well as improve, proprioception:
- Balance training exercises (using a balance board or unstable surfaces)
- Single leg exercises
- Heel-to-toe walking
What is interoception?
Interoception is the process by which the body senses, interprets, integrates, and regulates signals from within itself. This process of interoception includes signals originating from nerves located in the connective tissue, the skin, and structures in between. As connective tissues are woven throughout our bodies, this tissue is vital in monitoring our physical welfare.
Interoception helps us to regulate our internal environment. For example, if we are thirsty, interoception will tell us to take a drink. Or if we are in pain, interoception will tell us to move away from the source of the pain. In other words, interoception is vital for maintaining homeostasis.
Studies have shown that those with low interoceptive skills often suffer from anxiety and depression. Those with chronic pain disorders also tend to score lower on interoceptive skill assessments. The connection between mental and emotional health, physical health, interoception, and connective tissues, is still being researched as each is better understood, but the importance of each and the presence of at least some connection between them is clear. Fortunately, interoception can be improved through means which also benefit both mental and emotional health, as well as connective tissue health, such as:
- Breath work
Why is connective tissue health so important?
Healthy connective tissue is vital for daily functioning, both physically and intrinsically. We know that the fascia throughout the body is full of nerves that send imperceptible signals to keep us safe, help us move our bodies, and regulate our internal functions. When the connective tissue/fascia layers are damaged, they can adhere to one another, becoming rigid, dehydrated, and immobile. This damage can result in reduced mobility, reduced muscle or joint function in the surrounding areas, and cause myofascial pain. Besides the obvious physical problems from damaged fascia, restricted or injured connective tissues could affect one’s ability to receive the proper internal signals from the nerves located deep within. A compromised nerve within scar tissue can often result in symptoms like numbness and tingling, alongside pain. Damage to the fascia can come from injury, poor posture, repetitive movements, repeated strain or stress to a particular area, and even simple wear-and-tear and minor imbalances that build up scar tissue over time.
Healthy connective tissue, shown here, has pockets of fluid. Once damaged, these fibers can become packed together and dehydrated
How can fascia be kept healthy?
Healthy fascia is paramount to living a comfortable life. Keeping fascia strong and healthy helps to maintain a pain-free lifestyle, as well as preserve important physical functions, especially as the body ages. There are actions that can be taken daily to help keep fascia healthy. Additionally, there are ways to both prevent and treat scar tissue.
The following habits can be used to take care of fascial health on a regular basis:
- Stretching can help reduce tension and elongate the muscles and tissue.
- Mobility training programs can include a variety of exercises to improve one’s range of motion.
- Foam rolling is a great way to pinpoint tight spots within muscles and fascia. Work slowly and concentrate on holding tension in the areas.
- Saunas, both steam and infrared, can aid in recovery.
- An appropriate intensity of aerobic exercise can help reduce blood pressure, improve circulation and healing of tissue (as well as other areas), and improve sleep.
- Yoga can improve flexibility and balance, help elongate range of motion, and improve circulation to promote healing.
- Pilates can promote healthy spinal alignment and correct posture.
- Proper hydration, as fascia is ⅔ water, is vital for maintaining its health.
Alongside generally taking care of tissue health with these tips, in order to prevent scar tissue building up in particular the most important thing one can do is promote healthy spinal alignment and proper positioning. Both pilates and yoga are great options to help keep the body balanced while developing a strong core and proper alignment. Another important method for preventing scar tissue buildup by promoting proper posture is simply giving awareness to the body’s position throughout the day. Some of the most common causes of damaged fascia are improper sitting positions while at work, poor form while exercising or walking, and other similar causes that lead to scar tissue building up overtime. This damage to the tissue is actually often the body’s way of compensating for a position that it is not naturally meant to be in. If the body is signaled that an awkward position is important by spending time in it regularly, the body will harden tissue in order to make holding that state easier. Correct posture is essential for minimizing scar tissue.
The suggestions above can help reduce the accumulation of scar tissue and keep tissue and its nerves as healthy as possible. For those who may be suffering from damaged fascia, be it from injuries, wear and tear, surgery, poor posture, or something else, it’s important to find the right treatment that will not only temporarily alleviate symptoms but will also help the root cause. Our RELIEF® treatment at Vitruvia may be used to help restore and rehydrate damaged fascia, as well as free any compromised nerves. By focusing on the usually overlooked but vital layers of tissue, we’ve seen the treatment be successful where other modalities often aren’t. Contact us to find out more about our procedure and how it can help treat pain and restore quality of life.