My clients who have known me for some time know that I am an apprentice wood worker to my husband, Bill. Working with wood, be it making cedar strip kayaks or cutting boards, has some lessons for the human body, if one notices.
Remember the stickiness of collagen I mentioned in Part I? Collagen as a molecule is “leggy” with branches that grab on to other molecules around it. Remember also that collagen is literally everywhere in the body. The honeycombed-like scaffolding that gives home to our fat cells looks just like the fascial scaffolding around our muscle cells too. Nature loves patterns, and uses them across species and parts, widely.
So if the collagen in fascial scaffolding is what separates each muscle cell and each fat cell, and it covers each organ and bone and ligament and tendon, how should we regard it, now that we know about it?
Bill made beautiful cutting boards for friends and family a couple of years ago and needed a hand in the glue-up process. He had these lovely blocks of maple, cherry and a little walnut glued together in variegated strips and needed a hand quickly spreading the white wood glue in between them before clamping them together for a night to adhere.
It got me thinking about the collagenous basis of glue, and what is needed for a good glue-up. Of course, the glue, pressure and time. In this case, the clamps provide the pressure. Regarding time, if I were to unscrew the clamps and peek to see if the glue had set too early by pulling a couple of the wood strips on our cutting board apart, we likely wouldn’t be able to get the two pieces back together unless we scraped all the old glue and reapplied new, reclamped and gave a proper amount of time. The chemical bond of the glue molecules would break apart.
Every day I see people in my office with adhesions or “stuck parts” somewhere in the body. I have them myself. We all do, somewhere. Our parts are supposed to move, to slide against other neighboring parts inside us. So why do we get conditions like sciatica and pseudo-sciatica, the pain in the butt that nags and aches down the leg?
I keep coming back to what it takes for a good glue-up. Stickiness, time and pressure. The gluteal muscles are the perfect place for this to happen. We sit, providing pressure. We sit for long periods, providing time. We know we have the glue inside us, surrounding each separate part.
An experienced massage therapist knows that it’s not just about pushing on the tissue, but lifting it, too, like separating glued up parts so that fluid can flow between them again and they can slide against their neighbors like they should.
I’ll write more on that fluid and it’s dynamic role in our health and well-being at another time. But in the meantime, there is much we can do to prevent ourselves from “gluing-up”. Get up and move! Forget isolating muscles when you stretch, reach high and feel a stretch from your arm, through the arm pit, down your side and into the hip. Western medicine loves to isolate areas as if each works in a vacuum; don’t fall into an isolationist’s trap of stretching just quads or just calves without thought of the fascial lines that connect these parts up to your neck and head and down to the heel.
Here’s another aspect of the glue-up: dilution. We all know that we can add water to Elmer’s glue and lessen its sticking power. When we are dehydrated, the body will take what water we do have and use it for life-sustaining functions, not performance of the large intestines or of skeletal muscles. Adding more water to one’s diet, more than is necessary for survival, will serve to dilute the sticky nature of our collagen, “lube” the surfaces within us and help our immune cells reach every nook and cranny to protect us. Chemists have a saying, “The solution to pollution is DILUTION.” It applies to us, as well. So keep your parts “juicy,” keep moving, and go with the flow!
I’ve been thinking. Or rather contemplating the idea of what’s under our skin for over 15 years and in that time also palpating hundreds of clients’ tissues, my understanding has vastly changed. Of course massage school requires each student to memorize the origin and insertion of each muscle and some ligaments, and what each does. The pre-med anatomy and physiology courses in the university had “real-life” cadavers so we could see first-hand what a preserved, dissected and “cleaned up” dead human body looks like. All I can say is it’s hard for me to eat turkey bacon now.
These are the same classes those in the medical profession get early on, and I say the cadavers were “cleaned up” because the teaching assistants had removed with the skin, the fatty layer of superficial fascia and all of the meaningful connective tissue from the bodies of the cadavers so that we could see only the parts they were teaching and quizzing us about.
What’s wrong with that? It’s only part of the picture. It’s an unfortunate habit of human nature that we tend to discount that which we don’t understand. Boom. In the garbage, a whole organ system full of information and function. This outer fascial layer is often cursed along with our adipose, or fat. We have it cut and sucked out by surgeons’ tools. We cover it with clothing, we sit on it, and we hope to discard it because we don’t fully understand it. Let’s not fall into that trap.
If you were to remove a chunk of your fatty layer, say from your thigh, all the way down to the deeper fascial layer that looks like a translucent sheet of Saran Wrap that covers your quad muscles, and take this fatty square with skin on top, what would you find? Well, you would find lots of blood vessels, little nerves and glands closer to the skin for the release of sweat, skin oils and excess of toxic build up of substances your body no longer needs or wants.
But if you took the fatty layer itself and removed the fat cells, what you’d be left with is a beautiful honeycomb structure of a collagen-based scaffolding.Contrary to what my anatomy and physiology professor lectured, it does have structure.
It’s collagen based, I say, as is just about every wrapping in our bodies. It gives us structure. That collagen based substance can be found wrapping our blood vessels, around our bones and every organ in our bodies. It helps our muscles and tendons attach to the bones, it’s the basis of that big strappy hinge of our low backs, and when the fascia of the bottom of our foot becomes irritated, it’s called Plantar Fasciitis.
I liken fascia to a bread recipe. From the same ingredients it takes to make bread, you can also make pancakes, white sauce, paste, muffins, bagels, etc. all by slightly altering the ingredients. Collagen in this case is like the flour in the recipe, and is the glue that binds and thickens. You have undoubtedly heard of glue factories, and how the glue is obtained: horses, cattle, hooves, etc. are literally cooked to render the collagen from them for the white glue on our kids’ school supply lists. There is even a cow on the front of the bottle.
And just as collagen is to fascia as flour is to bread products, collagen can help form our outer cushioning layer, a strong lining for our blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, our ligaments and tendons. It creates scar tissue to repair wounds, and works with bone material to repair fractures. As if that’s not enough, it does even more.
So what breaks down collagen? Well, you know how sun exposure contributes to wrinkles, right? Ultraviolet light breaks down collagen. Lack of vitamin C breaks collagen apart. It takes one molecule of vitamin C to make one molecule of collagen. You’ve heard of the disease scurvy, right? Sailors and prisoners died of it by the millions. What happens when the human body doesn’t get enough vitamin C after 3 or 4 months? The collagen of the body breaks down until the teeth fall out of the gums, fatigue, depression, bones that had long since healed break open again, scars open up and ultimately, a major blood vessel breaks open, causing internal bleeding and death.
We don’t have to worry about scurvy today, because luckily, people in a position to observe, ignored the politics of the snake oil companies and popular thought of the 1790’s and tried something new. The answers had been there all along. The Native Americans knew it all along, but nobody asked them. Sometimes it takes a long time to see the value in something or somebody, especially if we don’t fully understand it.
Stay tuned for more on collagen and fascia and how and why we should get “unstuck”.
Every day people admit to me they don’t stretch their bodies. Surprisingly to them, I’m not judgmental about it. I understand how we jump out of bed in the morning and attend to a dozen things before leaving the house. We gain momentum and suddenly, the day is done and it’s time to flop into bed again. It’s okay…really.
I say this because I understand how setting aside a formal time is really difficult for many of us. So instead of preach, I prefer to distill the best and most useful
for those who wish to do something with a high “return on investment.” I’m a wiz at playing motivational games with myself, so I’ll share with you what the therapist does, herself.
Someone once queried me, “If you were only allowed to stretch ONE part of your body for the rest of your life, which area would you choose?” The question really was, “In which area does stretching yield the ‘biggest bang for the buck?’” Years of studying posture and contemplation made it easy to decide. My vote would be for the chest muscles. The Pectoralis major and minor muscles seem to have never-ending effects on the rest of the body. Let me explain:
Going through life, these muscles do just about everything for us that requires us to use our arms. The “Pecs,” as we call them, get tight and shortened in many, ways. Imagine two big coiled springs going from our sternum to the inside of each arm. Growing up, if we were too tall, lacked confidence, or a self conscious female in puberty, we likely stood with our shoulders rounded forward, making our chest look concave. Our mothers may have told us to “Stand up straight!” which worked for about twenty seconds. After years of this posture we begin to take on that shape as those “springs” get tighter and tighter. Our head juts out in front of us (because frankly, it’s nearly impossible for your head to remain back, over the spine if the shoulders are rounded forward. Try it.) and the back becomes rounded.
We may suffer from mysterious (to us) symptoms like sensations of achiness or tingling in our fingers, headaches, anxiety and neck discomfort. What’s going on here? There is a connection.
Biology teaches us that “form follows function”. When it comes to human posture, I interpret this law to basically say that our body will adapt and take the shape to the predominant posture we assume throughout our lives. If you spend 40 years with your shoulders rounded and your head out front like a turtle, why then are you surprised when a hump like a shell begins to form on your back?
Okay, back to the Pecs. Loosening these, giving them space, opening the chest up gives the Pecs “slack” and allows the shoulders to roll back naturally, allowing the upper back muscles such as the Rhomboids to work by pulling the shoulder blades together again. Imagine a spring that is coiled up too tightly can’t retract and “spring”
with much force. On the flip side of this, muscles that are overly stretched,
like a worn out rubber band, lose strength and contractility too, as a “hunched” back posture can’t easily correct and stay straightened up..
“Opening” the Pecs or those chest muscles allows the head to come back, aligned over the body again. Try holding a cantaloupe out and away from your body for as long as you can. Your arm will fatigue in a hurry! Imagine what the poor neck goes through.
The back of the neck gets strained and the deeper muscles in the front of the
neck get tight, can squeeze against nerves and cause sensations down the arms.
This posture also crowds the diaphragm and restricts deep breathing, making
breaths shorter and closer together, which can bring on feeling of anxiety,
stress, dizziness and many other unpleasant symptoms. Head aches are most common with a head-forward posture.
So how do we correct this? The only way I can really stretch regularly is if it is easy and accessible. We have doorways everywhere, which make great pec stretching surfaces. (If you don’t know this stretch, Google “doorway stretch” for images). You can lay backwards over an ottoman, or a big exercise ball with your arms in varying positions to the sides or overhead. You’ll feel the stretch in your chest, armpits and arms if you’re doing it right. Immediately you’ll feel straighter and taller. If you need a little help, any good massage therapist can help by working the arms, armpit area and just below the clavicle (collar bone) to give you a head start on opening up.
When I taught at a massage college I used to tell students to never underestimate the good they could do from educating their future clients of these concepts, for one day a client could come in with terrible problems (as listed above) not to mention
looking quite lacking in self-confidence. With tongue-in-cheek oversimplification I added, "Before you know it, they stand straighter, look more confident, get the job they apply for, the dates they want, and their whole life falls into place!" It may not
be that simple, of course, but who doesn't love a simple investment with a big return?