A bodywork technique called "fascia blasting" is making the viral rounds on Instagram, and like cupping and cryotherapy, it has a lot of people asking: What is this sorcery and do I need to be doing it, too?
The short answer: only if you want to. If you're into bodywork, treating your fascia probably won't do you any harm, but it's certainly not a do-or-die thing.
But what even is fascia? You can't see yours, but everyone has it. Put in the simplest terms, fascia is your body's connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs. Experts use lots of creative imagery to try and explain it: "it's like the white, fibrous layer of an orange peel"; "it's plastic wrap around your muscles, like a sandwich"; "it's like the compartments of a T.V. dinner." If you're still confused, that's okay, because even researchers are mystified about the extent to which fascia exists in your body.
"We think of fascia like a tissue that supports muscles and tissues," says Charles Kim, MD, assistant professor in the Departments of Rehabilitation Medicine and Anesthesiology, Perioperative Care, and Pain Medicine at NYU Langone’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care. "You can think of it as a bag of support around a substance."
Every move you make, every step you take, your fascia reacts to you. "If you’re dehydrated, suffer an injury, or perform any kind of high impact activity, this can cause the fascia to clamp up and adhere to itself and other structures in the body, such as muscles, bones, and skin," says Ashley Black, inventor of the FasciaBlaster (that thing you're probably seeing all over Facebook) and author of The Cellulite Myth, It's Not Fat It's Fascia. This makes your fascia rigid and stiff, which causes pain, tightness, or just dull soreness. (To be clear, Black treats athletes and regular people using her FasciaBlaster, but she is not a physical therapist. All of the doctors we spoke to for this story said that the FasciaBlaster is one of a handful of effective treatment methods for fascia tension.)
"In modern medicine, we don't have all the explanations or knowledge of exactly what fascia is, but we do know is that some people get adhesions to fascia and tissue, which cause irritation and pain," Dr. Kim says. "Physical therapists use myofascial — which means muscle and fascia — release methods to break up the fascia."
According to Black, foam-rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, might seem like the perfect fix, but this really just compresses your tissue and rolls over the fascia. It's still a great way to make a tense muscle feel better (and you should definitely do it before and after a workout, if you'd like), but Black says you've got to go deeper to target the fascia. "Imagine your hair is messy and matted, and you're just trying to smooth it over with your palms," she says. "Now imagine you have a hairbrush that actually combs out the knots. Which will leave your hair smooth and knot-free?"
The "hairbrush" Black is referring to is, of course, the aforementioned FasciaBlaster, which is meant to rake through deep layers of fascia. She created it so her clients could treat themselves at home. Black has identified 29 different "zones" on the body that people can target with a FasciaBlaster to feel better — but it can be painful and even cause bruising. Before you jump to order one, definitely consult your primary care doctor or physical therapist to make sure it's okay, on the off-chance your tightness actually comes from an injury.
Other hands-on techniques for relieving fascia tension exist, and they use friction and trigger points and are practiced by doctors and physical therapists, says Antonio Stecco, MD, PhD, president of the Fascial Manipulation Association and a faculty member at New York University. Like acupuncture or Chinese foot reflexology, the trigger points don't match up to the body part you're treating, but rather, they are vectors that connect to other muscles. "You never treat the area of pain; we treat the point that corresponds to it," Dr. Stecco says. And it can hurt badly, like a super-charged deep tissue massage.
Stretching can and should also be part of your daily fascia-maintenance routine, because it helps loosen up your fascia, Dr. Stecco says. Not to mention, it's a good thing to do to protect your muscles. You might also want to consider a deep tissue massage, because Dr. Kim says it's the least-invasive way to treat it. (Plus, it feels good.)
If your aches and pains seem sudden or just out-of-the-ordinary, you should definitely consult with a doctor to make sure it's not an actual injury that you're missing. In some instances, athletes (like runners) can develop a condition called "compartment syndrome," which happens when there's "too much pressure on the fascial compartments," according to Dr. Lee. In this case, you'd need surgery to remove them, but that's pretty rare and on the extreme end.
Besides making you feel looser and less sore, Black says that fascial manipulation may also change the way your skin looks. Just as fascia in distress can clamp onto itself and cause soreness, fascia can also adhere to your skin and cause visible dimples. "Fascia adhesions can pull the skin down and force the fat up, causing dents and dimples commonly known as cellulite," Black says. "If the fascia were to lay flat, so would the fat." (There are tons of before and after photos from loyal users on Black's Instagram.)
If you're skeptical, that's normal; any body-manipulation tool that promises instant, visible results is considered sketchy. (And hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with visible cellulite in the first place.) Dr. Stecco says that fascial manipulation for cellulite could actually be legit, but it's important to note that this is just treating the superficial fascia, so it might not get to the root of your pain. "Any tool that has a large face can affect superficial fascia, because it becomes softer and changes the shape of your skin — if that's what you're after," he says. Like we said, there's no reason to stress about cellulite, but if you feel pain and want to make sure you're taking care of your fascia, then it's definitely not a bad idea to give these releasing techniques a try.
Like exercise and nutrition, whether or not you concern yourself with fascia is about finding the method that makes sense for you. "When you put all the different techniques together, they're very similar," Dr. Kim says. So whether you're blasting or just stretching, it's your fascia and your choice.