Connective Tissue and The Fibroblasts Defined

When I first learned about connective tissue I was told it was an “accessory tissue”. What in the hell does that even mean? Why would my body have any accessory item in it at all? It’s like calling the tissue jewelry. You don’t need it, it’s just there to make things pretty. NOT TRUE.

We know now that connective tissue serves roles in structural support, metabolic functions, and defense. The most prominent function that is discussed is structural support. However, connective tissue supports something more profound than our muscles and bones. It supports our sensory nerves and is an essential environment for our nerve endings to live in. What we now understand is, just from the repetitive postures used in daily living like sitting or repetitive movements used in all sports training and many work environments cause stress and strain to our body’s ability 

to remain efficiently stable. It challenges our stability system – aka – the connective tissue system. If we keep doing the same things day in and day out, our tissues adapt to provide the best support for the most repetitive thing we do. This is good and bad. Repetition makes us better at the things we do. However, do something different and well, the body may not be able to provide your body enough stability to yield the demand of your new ideas and motions.

For example, sit in a chair and stare at a computer screen for 4-8 hours a day and you will get really good at keeping your head carriage a little forward and your lumbar spine a little flat. However don’t expect to bend over to tie your shoe efficiently and come back to standing upright well.

What’s more impressive is, over time, our repetition exhausts the entire connective tissue system and gives way to strain, accumulated stress and ultimately damage and pain. If we repeatedly cause tensional lines of strain to our support tissue, it’s like over wearing a pair of leather jeans or a knit shirt. After a while, the shape and form just doesn’t return to its original shape.

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In fitness, the only element of connective tissue that is discussed is the myofascial layer or layer that defines the interconnections of our muscles. However, myo-fascia is the muscle and fascia layer. It’s basically the muscular system when you define it as a network of movement rather than its isolated elements and how they work in anatomy and biomechanical study.

However, connective tissues also serve a nutritive role in the body. Different metabolites diffuse through connective tissue membranes during their transportation between blood capillaries and cells and other tissues. Adipose tissue (fat) specifically stores energy and serves as thermal insulation. Fat is caused by excess calories that are unused in our day. They convert into lipids and are stored as adipocytes until they are utilized. If they aren’t utilized, they simply get stuck in the superficial fascial spaces called microvacuoles and ultimately can be stored in our viscera or gut. This is a primary catalyst for poor absorption and digestion.

Connective tissues house specific cells called macrophages, which are grouped as part of the Mononuclear Phagocyte System of the body. These macrophages assist in tissue repair and defend against bacterial invasion. Fibroblasts in some connective tissue layers are designed to develop in response to injury and form fibrous scar tissue.

Fibroblasts are the cell that secrete hyaluronic acids and fibers like collagen and elastin that ultimately create the structural scaffolding outside of all cells. We call this environment the extracellular matrix. The various connective tissues are distinct and classified based upon the characteristics and locations within the extra cellular matrix. For example, tendons are the tissues attaching muscles to bones, ligaments are the tissue connecting bones to bones at joints. They are called different things, however all connective tissues have the same molecular elements except blood, which has hemoglobin. Elements we may have heard of like cartilage, bone, and tendons are all connective tissues. They all have the same molecular components. What differentiates each is the quantity of each type of molecule. The extracellular matrix as a continuous system contains a mixture of chemicals and molecules referred to as the ground substance. The ground substance is composed of special proteins (glycoaminoglycans and proteoglycans) that the cells secrete to attract water. This accumulation of water makes the ground substance gel-like.

Fibroblasts also secrete proteins that form fibers called protein threads. Collagen is an example of a protein fiber that aids in holding connective tissue together, making it firm. Elastin is what helps to keep the system flexible.

For some people, the fibroblasts make too much collagen or elastin and cause the body to either be too stiff or too flexible. This is seen in research studies of Dupuytren’s where you produce too much collagen or Fibromyalgia where your create too much elastin. So what throws off the fibroblasts production of proteins and fibers? We are not certain yet but water is a key element and stress is another.

How we manage stress seems to play a significant role in the ground substance mixture and the consistency of our fluid intake is also a factor.

What we do know is fibroblasts are responsive to tension and compression and both seem to alter the molecular matrix. We can influence it positively and negatively. We need to know more about this tissue. I am of course going to keep sharing my ideas and what I learn about this system in these blogs and through my teaching.

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