Why Tensegrity is such a Big Idea

Picture of Kenneth Snelson Needle Tower

Tensegrity, as illustrated by Kröller-Müller Museum’s Needle Tower, in Holland. © 2006 Onderwijsgek

Tensegrity was originally an engineering term coined by American architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller, as a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. He used it to describe the distribution of forces transmitted through a suspension bridge structure. His great insight is tensegrity structures compensate for any fault or weakness, by responding dynamically to balance the system as a whole, under various stress-loaded conditions.

Intriguingly, the tensegrity model has also been applied to many biological systems, with especially valuable work on this from Stephen M Levin MD and Dr Donald Ingber. Here, tensegrity denotes a system or structure where there are compressive units (such as vertebrae) which are not in contact and sit ‘floating’ within a pre-tensioned environment (such as fascia). This allows for the body’s profound mechanical stability, since all members are under tension or compression as the stress of the structure increases.

It is these bodily adaptations to stress in the tensegrity system, which are fundamental to our movement patterns, dysfunctions and symptoms.

This is why bio-tensegrity is increasingly recognised as a better way to understand biomechanics, because it integrates anatomy from the molecular level to the entire organism.

How you defy the laws of physics every day

What’s fascinating about the model is that when applied to biomechanics, it does a far better job of explaining why the human body is able to seemingly defy the laws of physics and achieve any number of feats we all take for granted. Everything from childbirth, walking, carrying a full bladder, to weight-lifting, gymnastics – even fly-fishing – should be impossible without serious, if not fatal injury, as the human body at the specific points of stress shouldn’t be able to withstand the loads generated. But it can when we understand that seeing as the body is an entire, integrated system, the loads are distributed dynamically, creating multi-dimensional stability.

For example, fascia – the seamless, integrated web of connective tissue that covers, connects and holds the muscles, organs and skeletal structures – is itself a tensegrity structure. What was once seen as mere packing tissue turns out to exert considerable influence over the forces your muscles can generate – and withstand. And seeing it as such opens up a wealth of insights into treating pain and injury that yields better and more far-reaching results than has been conventionally possible.

Restoring your body’s stability – at every level

Where things get even more revealing for the physiotherapist is how the model helps us help our patients. Injury clearly interrupts the body’s integral stability and its ability to withstand loads put upon it. Therefore, restoring that stability by bearing in mind the body’s hierarchical, integrated balance of micro and macro components needs to happen at various levels – the fascia included.

What puts the fascial release physiotherapist at an advantage over more traditional therapeutic approaches is that often the trauma or dysfunctional patterns in the fascia do not show up on any traditional diagnostic imaging, such as x-rays, MRI scans or ultrasound. Nevertheless, fascial release physiotherapists are trained to both identify and treat fascia-level trauma and restore the body’s traditional stability.

Which is why the fascial release work we do at Integra Therapy is so vital and so incredibly effective.