What is Fascial Unwinding and how does it work?

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Fascial Unwinding is seen by many as an approach not scientific enough to have validity. Because of the unusual, spontaneous movement that can arise during the process, plus the apparent lack of science supporting this work, it can deter people who, on all other levels, are on board with the importance of addressing fascia in therapy and movement. Yet, Fascial Unwinding is a therapy in good standing with the many practitioners who understand the power of this light touch approach.

Minasny states[1], “In the absence of a scientific explanation or hypothesis of the mechanism of action, it [Fascial Unwinding] can be interpreted as ‘mystical’.”  And this is the reputation FU has had, over the years; something that is intangible, unexplainable, and therefore fit to join the ranks of the ‘woo woo’ therapies.  Minasny sets out to provide us with a hypothesis that will lift FU to a more reputable position by extrapolating, from the various articles available at the time, an understanding of how the process might work. He focuses purely on the physical unwinding process: “In some cases, emotional release can also occur or be induced during the unwinding process, but this secondary effect is not the subject of this paper.”  

But what is this ‘unwinding’?  Minasny moots a hypothetical model: “During fascial unwinding, the therapist stimulates mechanoreceptors in the fascia by applying gentle touch and stretching. Touch and stretching induce relaxation and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. They also activate the central nervous system, which is involved in the modulation of muscle tone as well as movement. As a result, the central nervous system is aroused and thereby responds by encouraging muscles to find an easier, or more relaxed, position and by introducing the ideomotor action. Although the ideomotor action is generated via normal voluntary motor control systems, it is altered and experienced as a voluntary response.”

An overarching statement from Minasny, again, gives a good, general summary: “Generally, unwinding is explained in bodywork literature as being based on the simple principle of the body’s ability for self-correction from mechanical disturbances.  That is, unwinding occurs because tissues hold memories of trauma and the unwinding process allows the body to adjust to a new position of ese. Sills stated that the motions often signal the letting go of frozen stress responses and unresolved trauma.”  

In the same paper, Minasny demonstrates his theory that FU is an element of MFR, Myofascial Release and, based on that, paraphrases Robert Schleip’s well known research into neural plasticity [2] which theorises on how MFR works: “In this theory, fascia and the autonomic nervous system are intimately connected. Fascia is densely innervated by mechanoreceptors that are responsive to manual pressure. Pressure from myofascial manipulation involves the stimulation of intrafascial mechanoreceptors whose signals are then processed by the central nervous system and autonomic nervous system. The response of the central nervous system changes the tonus of some related started muscle fibers. The autonomic nervous system response includes an altered global muscle tonus, a change in local vasodilatation and tissue viscosity, and a lowered tonus of intrafascial smooth muscle cells.”

Others have looked at Fascial Unwinding since, including John Barnes and Paolo Tozzi.  Therapists find it a very useful technique that can be used alongside most other modalities, and it has been reported to be a profound experience for the client and therapist alike. Fascial Unwinding can emerge in our own self-healing, in our clients while we work with them therapeutically, and during movement.

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[1] Minasny, B. PhD., 2009. Understanding the Process of Fascial Unwinding. Int. J Ther Massage Bodywork 2209; 2(3): 10-17. (Online) Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091471/?fbclid=IwAR2PUmsGkUMwkavnBCp3dG8uCpnAycwjee4O2jMIqbAKgFopoRRSvAGlrXE [Accessed 15.6.21]

[2] 4. Schleip R. Fascial plasticity: a new neurobiological explanation. Part 1. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2003;7:11–19. doi: 10.1016/S1360-8592(02)00067-0. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]; 5. Schleip R. Fascial plasticity: a new neurobiological explanation. Part 2. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2003;7:104–116. doi: 10.1016/S1360-8592(02)00076-1. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

Jan Trewartha

Jan is the founder and director of the British Fascia Symposium and The Fascia Hub. She has been in healthcare since 1979, originally training as a State Registered Nurse in the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC), working with patients on the wards and in the operating theatre; a superb if non-deliberate foundation for her future career as a specialist in scars and adhesions.

In 1988 she was taught by a blind massage therapist to really ‘feel’ the body, leading to a lifetime passion for body work. Jan was a massage volunteer at the Auckland Commonwealth Games where she learned from professionals from all modalities. Her work now is the culmination of many years of training and experience in different disciplines. Through her school, Body in Harmony Training, Jan runs a variety of light touch therapy courses, including Sharon Wheeler’s ScarWork, for which she was the first accredited tutor in the UK.

To learn more about Jan please visit her website: https://www.bodyinharmony.org.uk/.

Jan is also the co-editor and lead author of the book Scars, Adhesions and the Biotensegral Body, published by Handspring Publishing in May 2020.

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