Unlikely Research Alliance is Solving the Mysteries of Fascia, the ‘Cinderella Tissue’

Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Medical Advances, Sci-Tech, Science with 0 Comments

Robert T. Gonzalezio9

myofacial release therapy

Image of myofacial release therapy via Colorado Body and Soul

Fascia is a web of fibrous tissue that permeates the body, but is it really the “Cinderella Tissue”that new age therapists, Rolfers, and yoga instructors suggest? The fascial system is still a medical mystery. But that could soon change, thanks to an unlikely alliance between researchers and alternative therapists.

Image of myofacial release therapy via Colorado Body and Soul

In October, 2007, more than 100 scientists from around the world convened in Boston, Massachusetts to discuss the latest research on fascia, an enigmatic, gauze-like matrix of connective tissue that envelopes the muscles, surrounds the nerves and swathes the organs in a body-wide-web of fibrous collagen. But the researchers had some unlikely company. Also in attendance, and outnumbering researchers 5:1, was a throng of complementary- and alternative-medicine practitioners with a mutual interest in fascia. United by their fascination with this medically neglected tissue, the two camps comprised the attendees of the first-ever International Fascia Research Congress.

Science's coverage of that first congress indicates that practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (aka “CAM”) signed up for the meeting in droves. The researchers, however, had required some convincing. Therapies defined by the National Institutes of Health as “complementary,” “alternative,” or “integrative,” are characterized, in large part, by a lack of scientific evidence in support of their effectiveness. More distasteful, still, to many scientists, is how readily such therapies expose themselves to untestable spiritual and metaphysical interpretations. For many researchers, to associate with alternative practitioners is to not only grant outlandish theories credibility by association, but to risk sullying one's own scientific reputation.

The scientists who did attend the meeting had been assembled through the efforts of conference-founder and Executive Director Thomas Findley. An MD with a PhD in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Findley has studied the science of rehabilitation for close to forty years. But he is also a longtime practitioner of “Rolfing.” Also known as “Structural Integration,” Rolfing is an alternative form of movement and energy therapy. To quote Ida P. Rolf, the founder of the practice:

How a Mysterious Body Part Called Fascia Is Challenging Medicine

Rolfers make a life study of relating bodies and their fields to the earth and its gravity field, and we so organize the body that the gravity field can reinforce the body's energy field. This is our primary concept.

But unlike many alternative therapists, Findley seems to recoil at the mention of words like “energy field.” Among bodyworkers like Rolfers, the standard practice may be to offer therapies that elude quantification and verification, but this, Findley says, is problematic. “The point of science is to ask a question in a way that can be answered either ‘yes' or ‘no,'” he says, “and a lot of practitioners pose questions in ways that aren't really answerable in a scientific context.” [At left: The logo for theRolf Institute of Structural Integration, which markets Rolfing. According to the RISI, Rolfing “works on the web-likenetwork of connective tissues, called fascia, to release, realign and balance the whole body, potentially resolving discomfort, reducing compensations and alleviating pain.”]

Findley thinks the answers he's looking for could be hiding in fascia. On the scientific side of things, the field of fascia research has grown considerably in recent years, though it lacks the coherence of other, more established areas of physiological investigation. For decades, anatomical dissections and representations have presented the body as stripped of its fascial tissues, and the majority of physiology textbooks make little mention of it. “Most scientists,” says Wallace Sampson, alternative medicine skeptic and professor emeritus at Stanford University, “even those wary of alternative therapies, admit that the field of fascia research is a field of neglect, and remains sorely under-investigated.”

By uniting alternative therapists with researchers, Findley hopes to spur discovery. He is fond of telling conferencegoers that when he was in medical school, glial cells (the predominant cell-type in the central nervous system) had no function. “We now know [glial cells] have a major function in memory, and do all sorts of things,” he says. “What about fascia?”

“We strip it, do away with it, say it has no function at all,” he continues. “Well, I suspect we're going to find major functions in fascia, just as we find major functions in glial cells.”

Growing Acceptance

It's been almost seven years since the first Fascia Research Congress, and both Findley and his conference have celebrated their fair share of accomplishments. World-renowned biomechanics researcher Peter Huijing, who was reluctant to attend the first FRC for fear that it would damage his reputation, has become one of the biggest headliners at subsequent meetings. He volunteered to help organize the second FRC in 2009. He even convinced his home institution – Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam – to host it.

In 2007, Wallace Sampson, the alternative medicine skeptic, roundly criticized the Fascia Research Congress, calling it “A Meeting of Incompatibles.” You have to do the basic science and build from there, he insisted at the time. “You can't force the clinical side.” In 2014, Sampson applauds Findley. “Findley may be in a position to point out, better than anyone else, in any other field, the reasons for the conflict between alternative medicine and basic science,” he told me.

And yet, fascia's “major functions” have yet to reveal themselves. To date, there have been no home runs establishing a clear, causal link between fascia's molecular, cellular, or biomechanics properties and the effective treatment of pain, injury, or disease – at least to the satisfaction of the broader scientific community. Findley continues to reference discoveries that have yet to be made. His e-mail signature is a quote, attributed to Albert Einstein.

“For an idea that does not first seem insane,” it reads, “there is no hope.”

But how insane is Findley's idea, really? Does it not make intuitive sense that a tissue found throughout the body would harbor some form of medical or therapeutic significance?

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