I put one foot in front of the other, stepping over roots and rocks, my hiking boots leaving little waffle marks in the soft dirt behind me. I am surrounded by trees that reach for the sky, and dive deep into the earth. Plants are emerging from the ground, splashes of vibrant green. And there is a misty fog enveloping it all, a damp hug from the air.
As I have been walking, I have been thinking about connective tissue.
The connective tissue is also called fascia. It surrounds every bone, muscle, organ, and vessel and connects them to every other part. It also creates a surface for those structures to glide and slide on each other. It is integral to the cohesiveness of the body and its movements. Practitioners talk about everything being all connected, and this tissue is the main reason why. It is made up of collagen fibers that give it strength and elastic fibers that give it flexibility.
As I move through the forest, I look around for the thing that interfaces with everything. Is it the fog? Not really. That leaves out everything underground. Is it the earth? Not really, that leaves out everything in the trees. What moves between everything?
The vernal pool to my right has a wooden boardwalk that runs into the middle of the pond. I step onto the planks, making a clunk sound, louder than I expected against the backdrop of birds and wind. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a little frog dive underneath the surface of the water.
I think frogs are pretty cool.
They are happy to swim in the water, they are happy to settle in the mud, they are happy to climb the trees. They can be flashy, orange or blue, characters on the cover of National Geographic, or sedately camouflaged into the green of the algae or the brown of the mud.
They can move between all the levels of the forest, in a sense connecting it all. But as an analogy for connective tissue, they aren’t quite right. But I want to play with the metaphor, it has potential.
I look at the water line of the pond, the interface between the air and water. There is a layer of algae, there are also water bugs dancing on the surface of the water.
Connective tissue responds to the stresses that are placed on it physically and emotionally, the way all tissue does. When there is stress or trauma, the connective tissue goes into a protective spasm, just like a muscle does, it tightens, and it contracts. And sometimes, the structures around the fascia heal, but the fascia forgets to drop its guard. These areas do not move very well. In other words, they become “fascial restrictions”.
I watch as the frog pokes its head above the water again. Ripples move outward to bounce off the surrounding rocks, back to the frog.
Because this system is throughout the body, areas of limited movement impact the entire body, just like the ripples in the water. The frog pokes its head out of the water in the middle of the pond, the ripples can be felt everywhere the water meets the dirt, even three dimensionally if you really think about it, going outward and down, or until it meets another structure that stops the ripple.
If connective tissue does not move in one area, some other area needs to work harder to complete the movement. Some people describe it like a full body nylon stocking, which connects every part to every other part, and moves with whatever movement is being performed. If it were to get a snag, the most common fix is clear nail polish, dab a little on the snag, wait a few seconds for it to dry, and problem solved. Sometimes the polish dries and sticks to the skin underneath it. Sometimes the nylons had to be adjusted to fix the snag, so they are not lying in the most comfortable position when they got stuck. That place of limited movement would be felt all over the rest of the nylons, the resting position would feel awkward, and movements might be altered to adapt to the restricted tissue.
I watch as the water bug skitters past the frog, ripples interfacing, the water amazing me in its ability to support the frog from deep below, and support the bug with the surface tension.
It occurs to me that this is just like I support the collagen and elastic fibers of the connective tissue when I work with a client. I support the elastic fibers and take them to their end range, like the water holding the frog, and then I hold them there, as the collagen fibers dance what they need to dance to get back to mobile tissue, like the water bug. This gentle prolonged stretch of the collagen fibers, while keeping the elastic fibers anchored, allows the tissue to change, and to regain normal tissue mobility. Addressing the fascial restriction takes the stress off the other tissues, so that when the client gets off the table, everything is moving again, and that usually translates into more comfortable movement.
I turn around and step back onto the trail.
Frogs didn’t make a great metaphor for the connective tissue system, but I still think they are pretty cool.