Connective Tissue Characteristics, Features, Functions

Connective tissue has a nerve supply except for cartilage and is highly vascular except for cartilage and tendons.  It consists of three basic elements:

  1. Cells

  2. Ground Substance

  3. Fibers (collagen, elastin and reticular

The ground substance or matrix may be fluid, semifluid, gelatinous, or calcified.  The matrix is secreted by the connective tissue cells and adjacent cells and determines the tissues qualities.

The thixotrophic effect is the ability of connective tissue to become more fluid when it is stirred up (sol) and more solid when it sits undisturbed (gel).

Collagen is the main ingredient of connective tissue.  It is hollow and may contain cerebral spinal fluid.  It is important in regeneration, growth, wound healing and it can migrate to any point in the body and adjust to internal chemistry in response to local conditions.  It can create specific forms of structural tissue appropriate to that area.

The functions of connective tissue are to bind, support and strengthen.  It supports movement and aids in posture.  It allows for compression, lengthening and stretching, twisting and rotational movements.  It absorbs shock and disperses stress/load associated with movement throughout the body.  It supports the process of wound healing, growth, and regeneration. It gives rise to cells that store fat, ingest bacteria and cell debris, form anticoagulants or give rise to antibodies that protect against disease.

Muscle is elastic, fascia is plastic.  Stretched a muscle will attempt to recoil back to its resting length.  Stretch fascia quickly and it will tear (the most frequent form of connective tissue injury.)  If the stretch is applied slowly enough, it will deform plastically: it will change it’s length and retain that change. Fascia does not snap back although over time and given the opportunity, it will lay down new fibers which will rebind the area. 

The plasticity of fascia is its essential nature- it’s gift to the body and the key to unraveling it’s long term patterns.

               -Tom Myers.  Anatomy Trains

Features of Connective Tissue:

  • most abundant tissue in the body

  • binds together and supports other body tissues

  • protects and insulates internal organs

  • acts in transporting nutrients

  • stores energy

  • consists of 3 basic elements- cells, ground substance and fibers

  • ground substance and fibers form the matrix

  • connective tissue cells are separated by the matrix

  • most have a nerve supply except for cartilage

  • highly vascular for the most part except for cartilage and tendons

  • matrix can be fluid, semifluid, gelatinous or calcified.

  • different types of fibers that are embedded in the matrix give CT different properties

Major Types of Connective Tissue Cells:

( ending in blast – immature class: divide and secrete into the matrix.
ending in cyte – mature cells formed from blasts run the matrix)

  1. Fibroblasts – greatest in numbers. Produce different kinds of fibers in CT like elastin and colloagen

  2. Macrophages – macro means large, phagein means to eat- engulf bacteria and debris by phagocytosis

  3. Plasma Cells– secrete antibodies for immunity

  4. Mast Cells – release histamine which is part of the inflammatory process

  5. Adipocytes and leukocytes(white blood cells) are also present in CT

Connective Tissue Matrix

Ground Substance -can change forms. Can be a fluid, gel or solid.  Healthy ground substance is gelatinous and can absorb forces from movement of the body and is like a shock absorber.  When ground substance is thicker the myofascia tightens.  Ground substance provides space between CT fibers to prevent adhesions.

Fibers – Collagen, Elastic, Reticular

Types of Connective Tissue

  1. Loose Connective Tissue- loosely woven.
    Areolar found in the skin, blood vessels, mucous membranes. strength, elasticity and support. }

    “‘Loose’ connective tissue forms a network extending throughout the body including subcutaneous and interstitial connective tissues. The existence of a cellular network of fibroblasts within loose connective tissue may have considerable significance as it may support yet unknown body-wide cellular signaling systems. …Our findings indicate that soft tissue fibroblasts form an extensively interconnected cellular network, suggesting they may have important, and so far unsuspected integrative functions at the level of the whole body.” (Langevin et. al. 2004)

    Adiopose – fat tissue stores triglycerides. Reticular CT forms organs.

  2. Dense Connective Tissue- have more fibers and fewer fibers than  loose CT.
    Dense regular CT – ordered, parallel CT gives strength. Found in tendons and ligaments.
    Dense Irregular CT – collagen without order. found in skin
    Elastic CT- freely branching elastic fibers in lungs and arteries.

  3. Cartilage- tough connective tissue.  Ground substance is condroitin sulfate. No blood vessels or nerves.
    Hyaline Cartilage- covers ends of long bones
    Fibrocartilage- intervertebral discs
    Elastic Cartilage – external ear


The connective tissue forms the three dimensional appearance of the body.  If you remove all of the tissue in the body except for the connective tissue,

 you would still be able to see the shape of the body.  You would still be able to see the skeleton and the shape of the muscles along with the blood vessels and capillaries. 

 The organs and duct systems would be intact along with the central nervous system.  Connective tissue does just that – connects the body from head to toe and from the skin to the deepest part of the bones.

Connective tissue has a rich blood supply except for cartilage.  That is the reason why it is hard to heal cartilage.  CT cells have a multitude of jobs in the body -from storing fat, ingesting bacteria and protect against disease.  CT is an essential ingredient in health but is one of the least studied.

CT is found in the interstitial spaces of all structures of the body.  It forms the membranes through which the body uses to deliver nutrients and remove waste products from normal cellular metabolism.  Tissue tension, adhesions and lesions within the tissue can lead to interference with the distribution of body fluids essential for life and can influence organ function. 

CT is also known as fascia. It allows compression, lengthening and stretching as well as twisting and rotational movement of the body.  It acts as a shock absorber to reduce the impact of movement.  If fascia is restricted, the elastic ability is reduced and the potential for trauma or injury is increased.

Ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, fascia and bone all fall into the category of connective tissue.  CT is made up of collagenous and reticular fibers, elastic fibers, fibrin and ground substance.  These tissues work together to allow movement.  CT can become adhered to adjoining structures and itself affecting the range of motion in movement.

Healing injury or trauma to the body requires the formation of connective tissue.  The process of inflammation is what actually starts the healing process.  During the healing process, adhesions can form which bind the injured area to other connective tissues.

Connective tissue may become thickened or too thin.  It may dry out or become over hydrated.  Managing connective tissue is the goal of a massage therapist.  Some methods address the ground substance – the part that liquefies with more movement and turns more solid (gel).  Some types of massage address the fibers within the ground substance such as the fascia.  Slow effleurage or other gliding methods as well as kneading, pettrissage and skin rolling can help stretch the fibers.