Why Am I So Stiff In The Morning?

Like the Tin Man, many of us shuffle out of bed in the morning looking for the nearest can of oil to get the body moving. A cup of coffee and a hot shower usually do the trick but an occasional body part can be stubborn with pain and stiffness lasting for hours. And if you think this is getting worse as you get a little older – you are right!

What happened to that childhood ability to bounce through life jumping, running and turning cartwheels with abandon? New science is shedding some light on the anatomic culprit – blame the fascia.  Largely responsible for the bounce in the step, fascia stiffens and looses its’ elasticity as we age. But there are ways to fight it.
Fascia is a matrix that runs throughout the entire body that can shift in structure from a fine spider web like density to a thick leather-like structure with varying degrees of fluidity from liquid to gel. It flows within, through and around all components of the body in a continuous fashion although the nature of the substance varies widely depending on purpose.

What does fascia do?

Supports and shapes.   Fascia holds everything together. In some parts of the body, the fascia is thickened for more postural support such as in the low back. Rich in pain receptors and responsive to chemical signals of emotional stress, lumbar fascia may be responsible for some cases of intractable or chronic low back pain.

Communicates position.   Through a sophisticated system of mechanoreceptors, fascia is responsible for proprioception or the ability of your brain to know where your body is in space.  Receptors detect muscular contraction, stretch, pressure, and vibration in order to tell the brain what the body is doing – fascia is responsible for our ability to move without consciously thinking about it.

Participates in movement. Fascia can contract in its’ own right and is believed to be responsible for heroic feats of strength under duress. More importantly, the force of muscular contraction to the skeleton is transmitted through fascial soft tissue structures. If postural integrity is lost – for instance we become stooped and rounded in our shoulders – the resulting abnormal movement patterns injure delicate soft tissue structures (fascia) and cause impingement syndromes.

Provides nutrients. The matrix of the fascia provides a highway for the lymph, blood vessels and nerves to traverse.  Specialized forms of fascia – synovial fluid – bathe joints providing nutrients and hydration. Synovial fluid is stimulated by joint activity so move it or lose it.

How do we keep fascia healthy?

Caring for your fascia is like a fountain of youth for how you look, feel and move. Soft tissue (fascial) injuries are common as we age and can be difficult to treat in isolation – the nagging shoulder, cranky knee, irritable back. Many are due to postural imbalances that require a holistic approach.

The approach to training and treating fascia includes movement modalities and manual therapies. Proven movement modalities are yoga and Pilates.  Manual therapies include massage, acupuncture and foam roller bodywork.

Four tenets are important to consider in designing a personal program.

Train in multiple planes. Fascia that supports the musculoskeletal system is oriented in myofascial meridians.  For instance there are four meridians in the arms and shoulders – deep and superficial, front and back lines.  Understanding the anatomy of the meridians helps to design an effective program but when in doubt include movement in multiple planes – side bending, forward folds, extension and rotation.

Lengthen, strengthen and balance fascial elements. Slow, fluid movements are required to work with these structures as ballistic movements can result in tears and ruptures. Fascia can remodel in response to repetitive movements or chronic holding patterns.  If we are constantly hunched over a computer or steering wheel, fascia in the shoulders becomes tight and restricts movement. Unilateral activities and deleterious activities in daily living need to be balanced.

Hydrate through movement. Drinking water alone will not get the job done. Hydration of soft tissue structures requires compressive movement to move water and other nutrients to the proper place. In other words, resistance training. As muscles contract and internal organs respond to the workload, water is squeezed out and then reabsorbed with fresh nutrients.

Restore elasticity. Rhythmic bouncing movements are best – running, kayaking, jump board pilates – but gage the level of activity to the tolerance of soft tissue structures for injury.

Use a Holistic Approach  

Fascia responds to movement modalities and manual therapies.  Yoga and Pilates are excellent movement modalities to lengthen, strengthen and balance fascia. Massage and manual therapies (osteopathy, foam rollers) help to free stuck fascia and improve plasticity. Acupuncture meridians mirror myofascial meridians and may explain the effectiveness of acupuncture in pain relief of soft tissue structures.

Give your fascia some love.  Feel better. Look better. Move better.

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