What Is Fascia?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 21, 2023
7 min read

Fascia is a layer of connective tissue below the skin.

Surgeons used to think that fascia is a tissue that just covered organs, muscles, and bones. 

Now, though, the medical world has expanded the definition to include tissue that surrounds all of the cells, nerves, joints, tendons, and ligaments in your body.

Body fascia is multi-layered, and it plays an active role in the body. It supports tissues and organs, lessens friction, eases muscle tension, and tightens up reflexively. It also helps your bloodstream, bone tissue, and skeletal muscles.

When it’s healthy, your fascia is slippery and smooth, and it stretches with you as you move. If it’s not doing well, it can get thicker, stickier, drier, and tighter. Because fascia is so important to your body’s functions, problems with it can cause you a lot of pain.

Fascia surrounds every part of your body. It provides shape and support. For example, fascia holds your muscles together, which lets them contract and stretch. 

Though fascia looks like a single tissue, it’s made up of many layers. These layers contain a liquid called hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid) between them. Fascia is made to stretch when you move. When fascia gets stressed, it tightens up. 

Like your tendons and ligaments, fascia is made mostly of collagen. But fascia is a different type of tissue. Tendons connect muscles to bones, and ligaments connect your bones to each other. On the other hand, fascia wraps around all your muscles and body parts.

Your fascia can be broken down into four main layers: superficial, deep, visceral, and parietal. These layers have nerves that make your fascia almost as sensitive as your skin.

Superficial fascia. This layer is right under your skin. It’s thicker in the main part of your body (your stomach, chest, etc.), and it gets thinner in places further away from your center — like your hands and feet. Superficial fascia can include muscle fibers that make up many different structures in your body.

Deep fascia. Your deep fascia covers bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. It can be broken into two subtypes:

  • Aponeurotic fascia, which is thicker and separates more easily from muscles
  • Epimysial fascia, which is thinner and more tightly connected to muscles

Visceral fascia. The visceral layer goes around certain organs that settle into your body’s open spaces, including the lungs, heart, and stomach.

Parietal fascia. Tissues that line a body cavity are called parietal fascia. For example, your pelvis is lined by parietal fascia.

Between layers of body fascia, hyaluronan helps the layers work smoothly with each other. When the hyaluronan dries up, your body fascia can seize up around muscles, make it harder to move, or get uncomfortable knots. Dried-out fascia — called fascia adhesions — can happen because of:

  • A lifestyle without enough physical activity
  • Activity that uses the same part of your body over and over
  • Surgery or injury that causes damage to one part of your body

Pain in your fascia is commonly mistaken for muscle pain or joint pain. The biggest difference is that muscle and joint pain worsens as you keep moving, while fascia pain gets better with movement and heat.

Fascia adhesions can be temporarily fixed, but they can also get worse as time goes on. If you leave your fascia pain untreated, your fascia will draw tighter around your muscles and can create very sensitive knots in your muscles, called trigger points. Because trigger points are in very sensitive areas, they can activate pain in other parts of your body.

Fascia pain is often difficult to diagnose as there are no imaging or lab tests that can identify it. Tests, such as an MRI, tend to focus on larger structures in the body. Another problem is that you may not have any visible signs of fascia pain.

The medical community is still learning how fascia works. At the moment, not all experts agree on how to define fascia. What’s more, fascia hasn’t received a lot of scientific attention.

Common conditions that affect fascia

Myofascial pain syndrome and plantar fasciitis are common conditions that can affect your fascia.

Myofascial pain syndrome. Myofascial pain happens when the same muscle is tightened and released over and over again from repeated motion or tension from stress. Symptoms can include deep muscle pain that doesn’t go away, sensitive knots in your muscle, and inability to sleep because of the pain. It’s different from muscle tension pain because it gets worse over time.

Plantar fasciitis. There is a thick section of fascia on the bottom of your foot called the plantar fascia. When it gets inflamed, it causes intense heel pain. You’re most likely to feel plantar fasciitis when you walk in the morning after a night of being off your feet or when you stand up after sitting for a long time.

The medical world doesn’t know what causes plantar fasciitis, but people who are older, are heavier, spend a lot of time on their feet, or do repetitive exercises like running have higher chances of getting it.

Frozen shoulder. Frozen shoulder is a painful condition that makes it hard to move your shoulder. It happens when the fascia around your shoulder becomes thick, tight, and swollen. 

Dupuytren’s contracture. With Dupuytren’s contracture, the fascia under the skin of your hands and fingers thickens and tightens up. Over time, it can cause your fingers to curl and bend toward your palm.

Hernia. If your fascia is too loose, a hernia can occur. A hernia is an organ or tissue that bulges through a weak spot in a muscle or fascia. The types of hernias related to fascia are:

  • Inguinal hernias  
  • Femoral hernias
  • Umbilical hernias

Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome is an inherited condition that affects connective tissue in your body. People with Marfan syndrome are usually very tall and have long legs, arms, fingers, and toes.

Compartment syndrome.Compartment is caused by too much pressure in and around muscles. With this condition, the fascia that surrounds a group of muscles, called a compartment, doesn’t expand. The result is swelling and bleeding, which can put a strain on muscles and nerves.

Peyronie’s disease. Peyronie's disease occurs when scar tissue causes the penis to bend or lose length or girth. Sometimes, a connective tissue disorder is to blame.

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. With Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic defect affects collagen in tissues. As a result, your connective tissue isn’t as strong as it should be.

Do your best to keep your fascia well stretched. The more flexible it is, the less likely it is to cause you pain. Move around, stretch frequently, and try to keep good posture if you do a lot of sitting or standing. This helps relieve fascia adhesions.

It’s important to give fascia injuries enough time to heal. Start with small, gentle movements and work your way up to more activity.

If you have fascia pain that isn’t going away with stretching, try to loosen trigger points by trying the following:

  • Heat therapy. Take a hot shower or bath or place a heat source on the uncomfortable area.
  • Yoga. Consult a yoga therapist for yoga poses that focus on relieving pain in your affected fascia.
  • Using a foam roller. Give yourself a massage by using a foam roller to help your body get rid of tension.
  • Massage therapy. Get a series of massages that can release pressure from trigger points. Myofascial release is a specific massage method that can release tension in your fascial tissues.
  • Acupuncture. Get acupuncture from an acupuncturist, who’ll place needles in your affected fascia to help connective tissue relax.
  • Physical therapy. See a physical therapist for a special type of massage, called a scar tissue massage, to break down adhesions that may be caused by scar tissue. 
  • Cold therapy. Apply ice or other types of cold therapy to lessen pain and inflammation
  • Fascia blasting. With fascia blasting, a wand-like tool is used to loosen fascia. 

Fascia is a thin layer of tissue that helps all your body systems work properly. If fascia tightens up, it can cause pain. See your doctor if home remedies to relieve the discomfort don’t work. 

How do you release tight fascia?

There are several ways to release tight fascia. Some popular remedies include foam rolling, stretching, massage, and ice or heat therapy. 

What are the symptoms of tight fascia?

If you have tight fascia, you might notice painful knots. You also may not be able to get around as well.  

What is the function of the fascia?

Fascia surrounds and helps support every internal part of your body. One of fascia’s key functions is it separates muscles but also holds them together. Fascia essentially provides the framework for your whole body’s systems to work with each other.