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Why is fascia release painful? Making sense of fascia release sensations

Why is fascia release SO painful?

For starters, fascia has its own pain receptors…which can contribute to the “pain” you feel when releasing your fascia.

If you’ve been with me for any length of time then you’ve probably heard me say repeatedly that

Healthy fascia doesn’t hurt when compressed.

So if your fascia hurts – whether you’re using a foam roller, lacrosse ball or you decide to get stepped on (via Kinetix – my method of partner fascia release) – it’s an indication that your fascia is unhealthy. 

What exactly does that mean though? What constitutes healthy vs unhealthy fascia?

Healthy fascia has an abundance of one thing in particular that makes it resilient and not easily “hurt.”

That one thing is: WATER.

Water is very hard to damage. You can move it from one location to another, but you can’t damage water. It absorbs impact with tremendous grace and ease, like a lake that allows the rock hitting its surface to make a beautiful growing ripple that spreads across the whole lake while the rock sinks to the bottom….no harm done to the lake.

When your fascia has a high water content it can distribute mechanical stress coming into your body (like your weight on a foam roller, my foot stepping on you or the pounding of your feet on a trail run) through your whole fascial system, very much like the rippling circles in the lake after you throw a rock in.

When your fascia is unhealthy, it’s lacking that high water content; it’s become either dense and fibrous, or brittle and dehydrated and it can no longer distribute the mechanical stress of energy coming into your body from the outside. So those pain receptors within the fascia get triggered, because there is some real danger of damage now. (Your body doesn’t know the difference between someone punching you in the leg vs you getting ready to release the fascia there…that’s your body looking out for you!)

While this is the MAIN reason fascia release “hurts”, there’s another reason that I have to mention:

YOU.

The story you tell yourself, or the meaning you attach to the sensations you feel…that is the ultimate determinant of whether fascia release is painful, neutral or pleasurable.

If you associate pain with the sensations of releasing fascia, then your brain will consistently associate pain with fascia release. At least until you make your fascia healthy. 

The human brain works by naming, categorizing and storing away information for future reference: is this safe, dangerous, neither? When I do x, y or z do I need protection, is it scary, or is it fun, playful, weird or simply “work?” 

We live in a world with physical laws as well as more spiritual or “energy” laws, so approaching fascia release with both in mind is helpful. There are physical rules that govern your body, your physical experience. Then, there are more energetic laws that have more to do with you, your mind/consciousness, your spirit and the meaning you give your life experiences. Do you find fascia release painful, neutral or pleasurable? Share below in the comments.

12 Comments

  • Tara Schneider says:

    I think I fall into the category of “feeling high intensity “ during facial compression. Even before I knew what fascia was, I would wonder why it hurt so much just to have a deep tissue massage to my legs. Looking forward to more hydrated & healthy “ feelings” and what can be achieved with Kinetix .

  • Catherine Cooper says:

    Hey Elisha. I enrolled on your Fascia 101 course last week and just letting you know that I accepted your loving challenge on the zoom call to reduce the number of pillows I put on the foam roller. I don’t use any pillows at all for my adductors, tfl, it band, hip flexors or main quad areas now. This took some courage at first! I’m down to using just one pillow on the lower quads near my vmo. Soon this will be a thing of the past, I’m sure. Yay!

    I’ve been breathing into my muscles and consciously relaxing them before I start and the pain is not as bad as I had feared or remembered from when I started a couple of months back (perhaps because my fascia’s in better shape?). I’m making the effort to be present rather than trying to distract myself by watching tv from my iPad too! And I’m also turning any fear of pain thoughts that surface into thoughts of curiosity by mapping out my hotspots.

    I think I fall into the brittle and dehydrated camp, mixed in with some mechanical stress, as I’m carrying around 80 pounds of excess weight.

    Thanks for another helpful and informative blog and video.

    With love, Catherine

    • Hi Catherine! WOW – I’m impressed and inspired! You’re doing AWESOME. You started where you were, with what you could do and look how fast you progressed?! Amazing. Thanks for sharing, I know it will inspire someone else who reads this blog post!

  • Jean Fox says:

    Are you familiar with HSP’s? Highly sensitive people whose nervous systems react differently than 80% of the population? It’s part of our genetic programming to be hyper aware and sensitive, thus affecting our nervous systems. Besides the foam roller can you recommend ways to hydrate and/or care for your fascia other than the obvious? What about accupuncture to address energy blockages….

    • Hi Jean – I am familiar with the term HSP, and have known people who identify as HSPs. My personal stance on most diagnoses (whether HSP, fibromyalgia or IT Band syndrome), is that naming the experience only describes symptoms and not necessarily the root cause. When I talk to HSPs, most of the time their life stories include traumatic experiences or experiences that ‘flooded’ their nervous systems as children. I subscribe to the belief in epigenetics more so than hereditary genetics predetermining our destiny. Meaning, while I do believe we are handed certain genes or family patterns, I also believe we bring our own unique energy to our lives, and the environment in which we grew up combined with how we decide (consciously or unconsciously) to inhabit those environments largely determines what we experience later in adulthood. And I also believe everything is fluid, changeable, workable. I recommend any modalities that resonate with you to address your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Acupuncture is great, hot/cold therapies, movement, healthy diet, healthy mindset…it all matters 🙂 Thanks for asking a great question, and even if we don’t agree please know I appreciate the chance to have a dialog and respect whatever it is that feels right and true to you!

      • Galit says:

        Wos,, Elisha, thank you so much for this enlightening answer (and of course, thank you Jean for asking a great question). My beliefs are completely the same as your, Elisha, but I find it hard to explain myself to others who don’t agree with me in such a beautiful and respecting way! With your permission, I’m going to adopt it…

  • Dave Bohler says:

    Just watched your fascia and pain video. Really helped me by seeing that I don’t need to be afraid of the pain, to convince myself that I’m not doing damage to my body by doing the rolling. 😀

    I am doing your fascia release exercises for “preventive medicine”, as I don’t actually have pain now. I’m hoping that by establishing a regular fascia release program will result in better overall health.

    I’m also using the exercises to help my Tai chi practice, as I believe releasing my fascia will help me relax and release both fascia and muscles during my Tai chi practice.

    https://taichionlineclasses.com/tai-chi-fascia-connective-tissues/

    This is an interesting article about the use of fascia in Tai chi. It tracks your program pretty well, I think.

    With that said – my question is – if the pain in releasing fascia is due largely to the lack of water in the fascia, I am assuming releasing the fascia will allow restoration of water to the fascia (assuming one is taking in adequate water daily)? Then, restoration of the water will, over time, result in no (or minimum) pain when rolling the fascia?

    Thanks for your work – it is enlightening and very helpful.

  • Dave Bohler says:

    Elisha – hi – just ran across this scientific article about fascia. It is detailed and hard to read (for me anyway, I’m just a poor country engineer 😀), but the conclusions are mind blowing for me. You may already have seen it, but it puts fascia front and center for all problems body related!.

    https://www.doctorschierling.com/blog/fascia-as-a-proprioceptive-organ-and-its-relationship-to-chronic-pain

    Looks like you way ahead of even the medical egghead types in doing something practical about this issue.

    • Hey Dave – yes, I’ve seen the article. I think Dr. Scheirling is providing a much needed service in terms of the depth of scientific rigor he provides in citing his sources and describing his theories. Personally, they’re a bit TOO rigorous for me (and it sounds like for you too haha) to fully dive in but I appreciate his perspectives. Thanks for sharing though, I am sure someone else coming here will find it helpful! If you like these theories, I encourage you to browse this blog for some of my older posts on proprioception, athletic potential, the difference between flexibility and mobility etc. And stay tuned for more from me on all of this 🙂

  • Esther says:

    Elisha, I have read all of your posts and have adopted foam rolling into my daily regimen. I have been focused on my quads, one of which has lots of tight fascia. I achieved relief in my tight shoulder and neck on the same side as my very tight quad. After a few days my shoulder tightened up again. I assume you have to keep rolling to train your mind and body to release the fascia. Is if ok to foam roll daily? I usually foam roll after my daily exercise and stretches. I assume it’s good to continue exercise and stretching. Thanks for all of the great information.

    • Hi Esther – you will have to find out what your body’s needs are. If you’re sore, take a break. If you don’t get sore, then daily fascia release is totally ok. And yes it will take some time to reverse the patterns completely. Then, it’s perfectly normal to need to maintain your fascial health, just like eating well and exercising.

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