Collagen + Mechanical Properties of Fascia

Fascia has several mechanical properties that dictate how it functions. The main three are thixotropy, piezoelectricity and viscoelasticity.

Thixotropy refers to the ability of fascia to fluctuate between a gel (viscous) state and a sol (fluid) state, and it’s because of the ground substance that this can happen. Fascia is everywhere, and fascia has more ground substance than other types of connective tissue so while you’ve heard that we are made up of mostly water (about 70%), here is exactly what that means. The extracellular matrix (all the space outside of your cells in your connective tissue) is made up of about 90% water, and suspended in that water are a bunch of water-loving peptides called glycosoaminoglycans (GAGs). The GAGs attract water to keep the ground substance fluid so it can serve its purpose as a lubricant for the connective tissue. When connective tissue becomes dehydrated or injured, the ground substance loses fluid, causing fibers to stick together rather than slide and glide. We experience these areas called adhesions in our bodies as tension or knots. Hydrogen bonds the collagen fibers together, so when we release an adhesion through myofascial release or massage therapy, it’s the breaking down of the hydrogen bonds that can create that burning sensation we sometimes feel.

Let’s talk more now about how any of this applies to yin yoga and massage therapy. Piezoelectricity is another of fascia’s mechanical properties. It is derived from the Greek word ‘piezein’, meaning pressure or to squeeze. When subjected to gradual, sustained pressure, connective tissue produces a small electrical current across its surface. The current stimulates fibroblasts, the cells that produce fiber and ground substance. Pressure and movement increase the piezoelectric properties of fascia which in turn stimulate the healing process and contribute to the soft and loose feeling we often experience after a yoga class or a massage. This is why I often include elements of self massage and myofascial release in my classes. The third main property of fascia is the reason why that soft, loose feeling eventually goes away and ultimately why slow and steady wins the race when it comes to to reducing adhesions/pain and increasing flexibility, and why frequency matters more than duration.

In my classes I encourage the use of lots of props and for students to back away from their edge in their stretch. The reason is viscoelasticity: connective tissue’s ability to extend and then rebound rather than stretch and recoil. I mentioned in my introduction to fascia and connective tissue that collagen fibers have the ability to lengthen but they aren’t elastic so they can’t stretch without also sustaining structural damage. How is that?

The molecular component of a collagen fiber is called tropocollagen. Several tropocollagen fibers wind together and arrange themselves in a parallel alignment to form one collagen fibril, then multiple collagen fibrils wind together, also in parallel alignment, to form one collagen fiber. The fibers are all arranged into a triple helix which gives the fascia a great deal of tensile strength, meaning for the most part you can stretch it without it breaking. Collagen fibers do not stretch, but they do lengthen. When gradual, sustained pressure is applied, the collagen fiber unravels from its triple helix shape and eventually reaches its full length. This process of unwinding and extending can only happen when the force is applied gradually and repeatedly. When the force is sudden or extreme (such as bouncing in a stretch or going so deep into a stretch that your muscles are shaking), the collagen fibers resist and become even more bound. When the pressure is gradual and mindful, fibroblasts are stimulated to produce more tropocollagen, which forms new collagen and adds to the resting length of the existing fiber. This is why I teach so slowly and with so many props, it’s for the greater good of the fascial
system as a whole.

Sometimes almost as quickly as the release comes, we lose it. If you’re looking for increased flexibility, a decrease in pain, improved immunity, better sleep, a clearer mind and lots of other great things... stretch slowly and often, breathe deeply and give yourself permission to generally slow down. Keep your tissues hydrated by drinking lots of water and moving your body often, make the time to go to yoga, spend the money on the massage. The fascia is our internal environment and caring for it properly is essential for our overall health, happiness and wellbeing.