You have six times as many sensory neurons loaded in your fasciae as in any other tissue of your body except for your skin, explains Jill Miller, a fitness expert and longtime fascia evangelist (she’s an experienced registered yoga teacher, has presented case studies at fascia research conferences and developed the Roll Model fascia therapy program). This internal webbing helps different muscle systems communicate with one another—they’re what make you want to get out of your office chair and stretch or roll your neck around. Ideally, your fascias should be supple enough to slide, glide, twist and bind like long, thin sheets of rubber. When they’re not functioning properly, signals from the nerve endings are muffled or muted (so you don’t feel comfortable in your own body) or they’re interpreted by your brain as pain and discomfort.
Fascia can be finicky: It gets stiff and sticky when you don’t move around enough, but it can also get bound up and twisted when you move too much or do repetitive motion or injure yourself through activity, says James L. Thornton, the president of the National Athletic Trainers Association.
The fix: Work out overused sore spots with a foam roller. You’ve probably seen people at the gym using these things, which look like pool noodles, to stretch their back, hamstrings and the notoriously tight IT band on the outside of the hips (this video from Jeff Richter, a certified strength and conditioning coach at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, provides a good foam-roller tutorial). Thornton says to go slowly, and when you get to a sore spot that feels like a bruise, pause for 15 to 20 seconds. The discomfort should melt away as the fascia softens and the muscles release. If you feel intense pain that doesn’t dissipate, Thornton says to stop and consider making an appointment with a physical therapist. At home, you can give yourself a massage with tennis balls or Yoga Tune Up balls, which grip the skin to help loosen up individual layers of fascia. Also try a device called theStick. It lets you really go deep into your calves, shins and hamstrings, but because it’s more rigid than a foam roller, the Stick can feel much more intense (think deep-tissue massage versus regular rubdown).
If you’ve ever had a shoulder rub and heard something that sounded like crinkling plastic under your skin, that wasn’t your imagination—it was probably your parched, stiffened fascia, says Ruth Werner, a past president of the Massage Therapy Foundation, who spent decades teaching anatomy and physiology to other therapists. The collagen fibers that make up fascia need to stay supple to work properly, and to slide over and under muscles and other inner-body surfaces.
The fix: One way to keep the fascia hydrated is obvious: drink lots of fluids, says Werner. Another easy (but easily forgettable) way is to make sure you stand up, stretch and flex regularly throughout the day to keep the fascia from locking up. Werner says some research has also shown that rubbing tight areas—as when you get a massage—can boost circulation and warm the fascia, changing the texture to make it even more pliable.