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Musculotendinous Meridians & the Role of Fascia in the Body

The body is not an accumulation of parts. When you do a bicep curl, you’re not isolating the bicep, every movement involves a coordinated resonance that passes through the entire body. Mechanotransduction is a principle in biomechanics that recognizes that when one part of the body moves, every cell in the body resonates and responds to that movement. The body moves as a whole in every action; musculotendinous meridians, or sinew channels form the network through which whole-body movement in the musculoskeletal system is coordinated.

Sinew channels, or musculotendinous meridians can be viewed as myofascially continuous structures linked through a fibrous network of fascia. Anatomy texts list muscle attachments as muscles connecting from bone to bone through tendons, but the reality is much more complex and far reaching. Part of the mechanical pull that is produced by a muscle is transferred to the origin and insertion of that muscle, but part of that pull also transfers through the fascia to other muscles. These transmissions of force connect muscles and communicate proprioceptive information that make coordinated movement possible.

Myofascial Meridians

There is quite a bit of crossover between Thomas Myers’s myofascial meridians described in his book Anatomy Trains, and the sinew channels. The terms “meridian” in his work describe a network, but are not based on acupuncture meridians or sinew channels. He explains that fascial connections are very complex and can be divided in many ways. Myers’ myofascial meridians are for the most part, very close to the pathways described in the classical texts describing the sinew channels. He mapped out these myofascial meridians through careful dissection of actual fascial chains in cadavers, physically removing the chain of muscles connected by fascia in-tact. Myers wrote that these fascial chains can be dissected in many ways, and the meridians he discovered are just a few ways that the body can be divided, alluding to the probability that other chains of fascial connection such as in the sinew channels of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) can be discovered.

Sinew Channels a.k.a. Musculotendinous Meridians

In the times that the classics of traditional Chinese medicine were written, the names and divisions of muscles as we know them today in western anatomy did not yet exist. Though their paths were mapped out throughout the body and described in detail, many of the descriptions of the sinew channels are vague and left widely up for interpretation as far as exactly which muscles are associated with the channels.

Today there exists a number of lists of sinew channels with named muscles throughout the pathway, but some of the muscles in these lists were interpretations by the authors, with no way to truly verify if these were the same muscles described in the sinew channels in the classics. As modern science begins to advance in respect to understanding fascia and their functions, these connections are becoming more clear, and today a number of practitioners are devoted to making more concrete discoveries in regards to precisely which muscles are associated with each sinew channel.

The Function of Fascia

One of the key functions of fascia is to connect all of the muscles that are involved in specific patterns of coordinated movement. They communicate from one muscle to the next in order to coordinate specific movements. To understand this, you can just use the example of standing up. In order to stand up straight we need to counter the force of gravity.  The heels need to dorsiflex, the knees and hips need to remain extended, the back has to extend to a certain degree, and so on. All these actions at each of these joints have to be happening in relation to and in sync with one another. If your ankle dorsiflexion is disproportionately flexed compared to everything else, you’ll fall forward, or have to create compensations all over the body in the form of active tension to counter that reaction. The sense of how much everything needs to flex and extend in relation to one another is coordinated by the fascia, and the specific pathways for our most vital movements are mapped out through the sinew channels.

Learning about the Sinew channels involves listing the anatomical structures that are in each channel, how they are linked from one end of a joint to another, and how each channel interacts on a functional level. The interconnected relationship of each meridian with one another and with the whole is what creates balanced posture and smooth movement in the body. Distortions in the balance of tension in these relationships is the cause of imbalances that create structural misalignments, chronic and acute pain, and risk of injury. When a muscle is sore, tight, or painful, targeting the symptomatic muscle does not address the whole-body pattern that needs to be released.

Tensegrity in the Body

Tension produces the integrity of a structure, this is the description of the term tensegrity. In architecture, a suspension bridge is a good example of tensegrity. The bridge is held together by the tension in the wires that connect the whole structure. If one of those wires were to snap, the whole structure could collapse. It’s not the “bones” of the bridge that holds it up, but the balanced tension of the wires. The “bones” provide the shape, but the wires hold it all together.

The shape of such a structure is maintained by its continuously linked tension. Our bones act as compressive structures, and our muscles-tendons, ligaments, and fascia hold them all together. The fascia maintains continuity of this tension. When a tensegrity structure is balanced, there is an even quality tension across every part of the body; no muscles are tighter or more slack than the rest. When a tensegrity structure is imbalanced, there is usually a part of the elastic continuity that is slack, and a corresponding area that is tighter than the rest. This determines good and poor posture, and is always present to some degree when there is abnormal pain and tension in the body.

How the Body Moves as a Whole

The meridians are a series of chains of tension from head to toe, or from chest to fingertips. Along that chain, muscles connect to bones, and relate to the next muscle on the other side of that bone. The end of each meridian connects with the beginning of another meridian, so a movement that begins in one muscle reverberates through the entire length of the meridian, then through the next meridian instantaneously engaging every single meridian throughout the body.

When one meridian is overstimulated, such as when a certain function is repetitively engaged, the balance of tension throughout the entire body is affected. Every meridian is supported by the previous meridian, and supports the next meridian. This is the support cycle. Each meridian also helps regulate or control the meridian after the one being supported (antagonist). So when one meridian has too much energy or tension, the meridian responsible for controlling it may be exhausted and weak, the meridian it controls may be exhausted and weak, and the meridian supporting it may be exhausted and weak. The meridian it is supporting may be overstimulated as well.

Treatment for the Meridians

Effective treatment of the meridian system relies on distinguishing which meridian is the most tense, and which is the weakest. The symptoms typically lie within the most tense or excessive meridian, but the long-term solution relies on treating the weakest or most deficient meridian. No matter how much the excess is dispersed, if there is deficiency remaining in a meridian, the problem will continue to return. There are often multiple meridians that are deficient and excessive in any given situation, but the most important thing is to accurately determine which meridians are at the source of the imbalance; the most excessive and most deficient.

Treating an excess may involve techniques that aim to help relax tense muscles and chains of tension, and treating a deficiency involves building integrity in the weak links of the body. Accurate diagnosis and knowledge of how the imbalance affects the whole body is critical for effective treatment. Effective treatment techniques don’t need to be complex; Simple techniques such as holding pressure with the fingers, assisted stretching and mobilization of joints, and movement against gentle resistance are easy enough for anyone to perform. Identifying what specifically needs work is what really makes the difference between amateur and professional intervention.

Meridians used in Movement Therapy

Through Sotai and Shiatsu therapy, I address the balance in the meridians to effectively treat abnormal chronic and acute pain and tension in the body. It’s easy to learn self-Shiatsu, and solo Sotai exercise, but self-evaluation takes a lot more expertise. I can determine which meridians are deficient or excessive by feeling a part of the body and comparing the tension through the various meridians. I can use Shiatsu to work through each meridian in detail, tonifying deficiencies with certain techniques, and dispersing excess with other techniques. Shiatsu also utilizes assisted joint mobilization, where the recipient is in a passive state (rag doll) and the practitioner moves various joints through a wide range of motion, or manually stretches a joint to help disperse excess. Sotai is used to balance bilateral imbalances in the body, simultaneously strengthening the weaker meridian and releasing tension in the overstimulated meridian.

These are ways that I can address dysfunction hands-on and in-person, but understanding the meridian system also allows me to determine imbalances and instruct people from a distance, such as through video or for those who are hesitant to be touched. I can also look at certain movements in a person’s body and see where the imbalances lie. Through this observation along with the reported sensation that a person feels, I can help people determine which meridians need work even through video. I can suggest movements and techniques to address those imbalances. After working for a few weeks, the situation of the body may change, so reevaluating and selecting newly appropriate exercises and self-treatments can progressively restore balance in the body.

Understanding the big picture of what’s going on in the body as a whole is inaccurate when we just try to put all the obvious pieces together. With knowledge of the musculotendinous meridians, it’s more obvious to determine certain patterns of disorder in the body. Having a reliable means of evaluation through observation and questioning; and knowing techniques that are easy to learn through visual examples and spoken instruction makes it possible to help people remotely.

Addressing only the localized symptoms yields limited results, but addressing the most excessive and deficient meridians makes profound and lasting changes. Understanding these structural relationships in the body can change the way we approach movement and rehabilitation.

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