Does Fascial Research Alter Assessment?

By Whitney Lowe, LMT
April 25, 2011

Does Fascial Research Alter Assessment?

By Whitney Lowe, LMT
April 25, 2011

Tom Myers recently wrote an article highlighting some outstanding research published by the Dutch osteopath and anatomist Jaap van der Wal. I was intrigued by the concepts Myers highlighted in this article and looked for more of van der Wal's publications.

In addition to his previous papers on the subject of fascia, van der Wal also published a paper in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork in 2009 that explores these anatomical concepts in great detail.

It is interesting to note that van der Wal wrote of these very important findings almost 20 years ago, but did not find acceptance of those ideas within the traditional scientific publishing community until recently.

The essence of van der Wal's research points out that dissection and anatomical science has for centuries focused on a very reductionistic and mechanistic view of the musculoskeletal system. However, he suggests it is a much more complicated and intricately woven web.

In his dissection studies, van der Wal demonstrates that ligaments are not discrete structures separated from muscle and fascial connective tissue. His research shows that at least some ligaments around the body's joints are actually connected in series with muscular tissues - meaning that muscles have fascial connections with ligaments and thus may not act independently.

Does this information impact our practice?

For years the dominant model of orthopedic assessment has been the foundation of James Cyriax's model of contractile and non-contractile (inert) tissues. Contractile tissues included muscle and its associated tendon, because the tendon was strongly pulled once the muscle contracted. Inert tissues were all the soft tissues other than muscle and tendon. They are called inert because they don't actively contract and they are only passively lengthened or shortened during motions of the joints.

Clinicians used this structural format to establish a systematic process of evaluating soft-tissue dysfunction. The central point of this evaluation method is that certain evaluation procedures produce pain or discomfort if a contractile tissue is at fault, while other methods produce pain if an inert tissue is at fault.

As an organizational system it makes very good sense and works quite well in the evaluation process. But there are times when the pattern of pain or discomfort does not seem to fit this classical formula. That leaves the clinician to discover and interpret what the anomaly means. Now, we may have an explanation that helps unravel some of these inconsistencies.

If there are direct fascial connections that tie ligaments and muscles together in series, then ligaments will have tensile loads applied to them when muscles contract. Traditionally, we have said that a manual resistive test applied to a particular joint motion isolates the muscle-tendon tissues, but not the inert tissues. The muscle-tendon tissues are engaged in a contraction generating a tensile load. Because there is no movement at the joint the inert tissues are not stressed at all.

With this new research, that axiom no longer holds true. If muscles have direct serial connection with ligaments, a manual resistive test with no movement could still put a tensile load on a ligament. If that ligament was damaged, pain could ensue. Under the old paradigm one would assume pain during a manual resistive test is only a muscle-tendon injury, but now we see it could be a ligamentous injury. What does this mean?

For the therapist in clinical practice these concepts have tremendous importance in attempting to identify which tissues might be the source of the client's pain. There are very important implications for both assessment and treatment from these exciting research findings.

From the assessment perspective, it means we must consider the possibility of a greater number of tissues causing client pain if muscle contraction or stretch is involved, especially if that pain is localized near a joint. From the treatment perspective, it means we must look at the extensive functional relationships between different tissues and consider how treatment of one type of tissue (muscle for example) may affect the function of another (ligament).

I have always been an advocate of staying current with research findings and looking for innovative ways to apply them to clinical practice. It is exciting because we're constantly learning new things, and these new concepts and ideas help us become ever more effective with the clients who come seeking our help for pain and injury complaints.


  1. Myers T. Dynamic Ligaments. Massage. Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: Massage Magazine, Inc.; 2011.
  2. van der Wal J. The Architecture of the Connective Tissue in the Musculoskeletal System - An Often Overlooked Functional Parameter as to Proprioception in the Locomotor Apparatus. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. 2009;2(4):9-23.