Understanding Massage and Fascia

Fascia is the biological fabric that holds us, and our horses, together. It’s a thin, tough connective tissue found between layers of muscle fibers, around and between muscles, around organs, joints, tendons and bones. It’s all connected in a giant web throughout the entire body, keeping everything in its place, providing strength and support and allowing surfaces to move smoothly across each other.

It’s your horse’s largest organ.

Fascia changes slightly according to the job it has to do; it will be softer, gliding and easy to move in areas of high movement such as top of the leg, or it can be stronger and less elastic in areas where it’s needed for structure, as in the horse’s lower leg.  Similar to other types of connective tissue,  fascia is made up of closely packed fibrous bundles of collagen. These collagen fibers are made up of approximately 70% water when healthy.  Fascia is flexible and able to resist tension until it’s straightened out by the pulling force.

Research shows that there are many types of nerve endings found in fascia. 3types of mechanoreceptors provide information to the central nervous system about touch, pressure, tension and vibration.  Fascia also contains sensory receptors related to proprioception, the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body.

Fascial restrictions can cause pain or tightness locally.  Pain from an adhesion in one spot may also radiate into another area or several seemingly unrelated points, traveling down the fascial connection. This is called referred pain. The body is a whole – if one spot in the fabric is tight, the rest will have to physically adjust to compensate for it.

Factors that can cause fascia to become gummy, crinkle up and adhere together include limited movement, excessive physical activity (causing damage and inflammation), dehydration, extended pressure and trauma such as an injury or surgery.

When fascia gets stuck together a series of painful symptoms will begin to appear. You may notice painful, tight muscles, reduced performance or reduced ability to recover from exercise. Sometimes adhesions can entrap nerves and inhibit blood supply to an area. One very common area for fascia and the muscles inside it to become “jammed up “ is under the saddle area. This can occur when a horse has been ridden in a poorly fitted saddle or when a horse has had weight on their back for too long, crushing the fascia and muscles under the saddle.

Using massage to address issues in the fascia can reduce pain, free painful nerves endings and increase range of motion. Massage brings hydration, circulation, nutrients and movement to fascia. It warms, softens and supples. It separates and loosens fibers. Movement, heat and pressure help to release adhesions and allow movement back into the horse’s muscles and skin.

Massage can also help the horse improve proprioceptive awareness in the fascia. Massage techniques with different frequencies, amplitudes and intensities stimulate fascial tissue and the mechanoreceptors. Through this stimulation, additional proprioceptive information is generated building a better self awareness.  This can be especially helpful for horses recovering from nervous system disease such as EPM or for a horse changing it’s movement patterns such as from racing to riding horse.

People may think “Fascia – I should find a myo(muscle)fascial specialist to do that”.  Many equine massage therapists are also be educated in myofascial techniques and will incorporate them into their bodywork after the tissues have been thoroughly warmed up by massage.  Talk to your equine massage therapist about his or her education and approach to bodywork.

Fascia can become sensitive and painful. Your equine massage therapist should try to work with your horse without causing excessive discomfort. If your horse does have extremely painful areas, using a tool like the Aah Light (see below) can soothe painful fascia and allow for more productive work.

Regular massage will help keep your horse’s fascia,  and the muscles and tissues inside it, healthy and supple for a sounder, more productive life.

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