Fascial stretch therapy: The science of stretching

shallow focus photo of woman in black sleeveless shirt doing yoga

FASCIAL STRETCH Therapy. In case you misread that, I’m not talking about a series of anti-aging exercises for the face.

This is fascial, not facial. For anyone with even a remote interest in exercise, the word ‘fascia’ is probably not new to you. However, for those who don’t fall into this category, fascia is like a membranous casing that runs the entire course of the body, from top to toe, front to back, around and through just about every muscle, nerve, and organ.

This membrane covers muscles and permeates deep down into them, joining connective tissue at a cellular level. In a perfect world, this would act to stabilise connective tissue, while still maintaining mobility and flexibility. However, many of us don’t live in a perfect world.

Hunched over a desk all day, cradling a phone to your ear while you drive or use the computer, slouching on the sofa in the evening. Does any of this sound familiar?

These are just basic postural tendencies to which a lot of us have fallen foul. Add to that specific injuries, lack of exercise, too much exercise, surgery, and so on, and you can see how the body can get mangled and knotted up. While a massage can aim to alleviate muscle tension, if the very fascia surrounding those muscles is still tight, relief is short-lived.

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That’s where fascial stretch therapy comes in.

Devised by Ann and Chris Fredrick in the US, fascial stretch therapy (FST) dramatically improves flexibility by lengthening the fascia. This involves a series of stretches performed by a qualified practitioner.

While lying on a table, with a series of straps holding one leg down, the practitioner sets to work on the other leg, using a range of slow movements which ‘flow’ in much the same way the fascia itself should. The client is asked to take deep gentle breaths during this process to aid the stretch. If you have ever done yoga, you will be familiar with the concept of breathing into tight spots, helping to open up and release tension. However, these are stretches you would be hard pushed to get into yourself without some assistance. It’s nigh impossible to take your own hip socket and stretch it away from itself!

This may sound uncomfortable but one of the tenets of FST is that optimal flexibility gains are made without pain. If you think about it, this too makes sense. When you force a muscle, or joint for that matter, beyond its comfortable range of motion, it goes into defence mode, seizing up to protect itself. In the case of over-exerted muscle, this goes so far as to lay down scar tissue over the tears caused by excessive exercise. You can well imagine how smooth movement of fascia might be restricted by over-tightened, scar damaged muscles. So FST emphasises the no pain approach.

The sensations may be unusual, in that your leg may not normally be up beside your ear, but it certainly isn’t painful. Remember, it is being supported by the practitioner, so it is important not to try to anticipate what he or she is about to do, simply breathe and let them get on with it. This series of stretches and opening is repeated throughout the body, though the first session concentrates generally on the lower body.

So many people who lead sedentary lives are prone to lower back pain and hip trouble, while those with extreme fitness programmes can suffer from knee trouble, ankle problems, and so on, both from impact injuries and inappropriate training.

Many of these problems could probably be alleviated if we concentrated sufficiently on stretching well prior to exercise and again post-exercise, but for many, this is the least important part of their workout. Hence the fascia tightens up and gets ‘stuck’ in that position.

In FST, it is as if the therapist is having a conversation with the muscles and fascia, reminding them of how to return to their lengthened, flexible state.

Ann Fredrick who devised the system is a former ballet dancer, so she would know only too well the importance of stretching and the detrimental effects of over-stressing any one area of the body. Everything else has to compensate, causing imbalance and tension.

Currently there are only a handful of therapists in Ireland as the training takes place in the US.

Whether you suffer from injuries already, or more importantly, would like to prevent injuries in the future, incorporating stretching into your day-to-day regime is a good idea.

However, when you need extra help to get things back into balance, FST can be of benefit to just about anyone.

Obviously caution is advised if you have just had surgery, or a condition like osteoporosis, but a trained FST therapist can advise you on this. It’s recommended that you have couple of treatments at the start to help ease out hidden tension.

We all store tension in the body, yet when we try to perform stretches on ourselves, we sometimes end up causing even more tension. Would it be a stretch then to say we could all benefit from FST?