Fountain of Youth I: Skeletal Alignment and Muscle Pain 1

July 16, 2009 at 5:24 PM | Posted in Fountain of Youth, Health and Fitness | 2 Comments
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Hooray for the first actual article I’ll be writing! I’ve decided to kick off my series on staying young with that which I know the most about: muscular pains and skeletal alignment. Actually, secondary to possibly psychological problems, you probably know the most about this one, too. If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard an old person tell me their life was over because of chronic musculoskeletal disorders…well, you get the picture. How many times have young guys who are in shape been told by old guys how they’ll end up injured and unable to keep lifting? Sure, you get the point. But I’m here to tell you that most of “aging” doesn’t have to happen.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. I firmly believe that sound understanding of theory facilitates the practical application in solving problems. Translation: if you actually know something about what you are doing, you will do it much better. Elite athletics has always been pushing the envelope on the human body, and most of what we know as a species about our muscular and skeletal systems comes from people who are leading the world of sports. Now, before you go on about how you were awesome, let’s distinguish between an athlete and an elite athlete. EVERYBODY was an athlete at SOME point. But, not many are truly elite. That said, I was once an elite athlete. I have achieved the upper end of musculature that is possible naturally, and I have strived to prove to society and myself that you can look excellent without the help of anabolic steroids. However, in my attempts to reach this goal, I have suffered some pretty serious injuries and learned all about how the muscles in your body control your bones’ position and how, amazingly, things like every-day chronic pain and nervous system injuries can be controlled and healed permanently.

So, let’s get down to business. As you may or may not already know, your muscles are the primary movers of your body. If you take a look at how your limbs are set up, you’ll see just how incredibly simple it is. Your entire body relies on muscles that comprise a basic pulley-rope system. It’s easy: your biceps contract and pull on your forearm and shoulder joint, bringing them closer together. We call this elbow flexion, in fancy medical terms. Anyway, your legs are almost the exact same as your arms, but they have more muscles because they are built for stability and not mobility: quadriceps replace triceps and hamstrings (biceps femoris, as it turns out) replace biceps. Easy, right? Well, the muscles in your trunk aren’t exactly the easiest to understand. They are made differently: a lot of them are “sheet” muscles, and their contraction provides little movement but stabilization. And, to top it off, there are deep layers of muscle that aren’t necessarily as glamorous as biceps or chest, but they play a crucial role in your health (you have heard of them referred to as your core muscles).

The psoas muscle length controls the position of your hips and lumbar spine, and is critical to core strength and stability.

The psoas muscle length controls the position of your hips and lumbar spine, and is critical to core strength and stability.

When any of these muscles get out of whack, something goes wrong. Muscles can malfunction due to a number of problems: nervous system disorders and/or injuries, mechanical habits (you sitting all day) or overuse. In our society, we have a number of things that almost everyone suffers from because our muscles adjust to our daily habits. One example is sitting: I am a huge fan of not sitting, actually, because it’s really difficult to maintain good posture and it puts a lot of muscles in a shortened or lengthened position for a long period of time. Sitting at the computer will shorten your hip flexors, inhibit your hip extensors and pull your back muscles apart. Of course, there are other problems too.

Let’s take a look at how a normal person’s life happens. The first stage is, of course, youth, where the hormones in our bodies are high, growth is still happening, the final psychological and physical developments are taking place and we feel great. There seems to be no end to our energy, ability to metabolize food, sex drive or our great exercise habits. Then, somewhere along the way, we get a job or turn 21 and we start devoting more time to work, drinking and planning for life. Of course, you MIGHT keep up with the gym if you’re good with time management. Either way, it isn’t long before our metabolism slows down and we eat less, we stop using our brains enough and they become depressed or we have to stop working out because we’re ‘getting older’ and don’t quite have it anymore. We get married, settle down, have a few kids and continue to go to work, where we are depressed and driven into the ground by the day-to-day humdrum of doing the same thing over and over again for hours on end. Now, our muscles and joints are starting to ache a lot more. We probably aren’t eating very well, what with ten kids to care for and work taking up a lot of our time, just throw some Bertolli’s in the microwave and feel good about watching their authentic Italian food commercials. Then we go to bed, and one morning we wake up with incredible joint pain, a lot of extra weight around the waist and crazy-ass adolescent kids who wear on our nerves. Of course, we can’t let that stop us, so pop the pain killers and keep going. Then, later down the road, we start having arthritis, cartilage degeneration, sight problems if we don’t have them already, and more and more internal problems: cancer, liver disease, kidney failure, heart failure, you name it. Eventually, one of them will kill us.

Now that you’re sufficiently depressed at how your life will play out, let me try to bring your spirits back up by telling you that this doesn’t have to happen. What? But this is AGING, Frank! People DIE because they were born to die! That’s what everyone does, right? Born, develop, age, children, age, die. If that’s what you want to do, go for it. But I won’t be doing that, and I hope you’ll take it to heart when I tell you there’s another way.

What’s this other way? Well, that’s the subject of this series. Let’s start by looking at the NUMBER ONE problem, in my opinion. Go back to the part about working out and getting pains. That’s where it all starts. Humans were built for activity, but they, like all animals, have some serious problems. Biology (or god, if you’re into that) didn’t really give us a fool-proof system. In nature, we’re meant to live about thirty years, father as many children as women will allow us to and die fast. We’ve had the sentient ability to study ourselves, however, and the results are in: you can live a LOT longer.

Muscles start getting pains because they are being used. They respond by creating what are called trigger points. Trigger points are parts of a muscle that can’t stop contracting because they have been injured during use. Trigger points have a number of effects; they can cause pain (although they don’t always) and force you to stop using the muscle so it can heal (which it won’t, thanks to biology), they can cause adjacent muscles to stick together and they can cause muscle lengthening or shortening (mostly shortening). As you can imagine, none of this is good news.

Notice how the trigger points make the affected muscle fibers shorter and immobile.

Notice how the trigger points make the affected muscle fibers shorter and immobile.

To make matters worse, there is another thing in your body called fascia tissue. Fascia is very literally the glue that holds us all together. Have you ever wondered how individual muscles are different from one another? The trapezius sits right on top of the rhomboids and levator scapulae (see the picture below), but somehow they are separate from one another.

The left side shows deep muscles that are actually underneath the muscles shown on the right side.  They are separate from one another, but they are touching.

The left side shows deep muscles that are actually underneath the muscles shown on the right side. They are separate from one another, but they are touching.

This puzzle always baffled me as a child learning anatomy. The answer is fascia tissue: fascia is a tough structure that surrounds EVERYTHING in your body. In its toughest form, it forms the tendons and ligaments in your body. Imagine this: your muscles are all made up of individual fibers. Each INDIVIDUAL fiber is wrapped by fascia. Then, each bundle of about ten or so fibers is wrapped in fascia. Then each bundle of bundles is wrapped by fascia and pretty soon you’re looking at the whole muscle being wrapped in fascia. At the ends of the muscle, the muscle tissue itself stops, but the fascia keeps going and it all ends up coming together at the ends, creating tendons. Bones are wrapped in fascia and layers of fascia form at the end to form ligaments and other tough structures that hold us together. Organs are wrapped in fascia and all of it attaches to the spine. As you can see, fascia plays a very important role in holding us together and giving us human form. The catch is that fascia can tighten, scar and become immobile by sticking to itself just like muscles can.

The fascia surrounds each individual fiber and the whole group of fibers. At the end of the muscle, the layers come together to form tendons and ligaments.

This is what the stuff actually looks like.

This is what the stuff actually looks like.

So, what now? Well, hopefully you realize that most of your problems are fascial and muscular. You’ve probably got lots of trigger points in your muscles and lots of points where fascia between muscles is sticking together. In fact, a lot of nervous disorders also deal with nerves being encased in fascia that sticks to neighboring muscles. When stuff sticks together, it doesn’t work as well, and things don’t glide over one another like they should. Your whole body is wrapped in several huge layers of fascia. If one spot on it gets tight, the rest will have to compensate. You see this manifested in the form of skeletal misalignment: say your hip has a few trigger points that cause the hip muscles to shorten. Then, the fascia of your leg readjusts itself and becomes shorter and tighter. This fascia connects to your shoulder, and all of a sudden your shoulder is out of alignment too! Now, your spine has to compensate for the “permanent” pelvic tilt you have and you develop functional scoliosis. All of this amounts to pain, joints rubbing in ways they shouldn’t and what we call AGING! I hope you are seeing where I am going with this by now.

So, this is all hopelessly complicated all of a sudden. Who knows what your shoulder pain is from. It could be a tight pinky toe for all we know! But, luckily, one advantage to having a gazillion people on the planet is that we have learned, through experience, where the most common problems are. This kind of knowledge is summarized visually in things called trigger point charts, which show where trigger points are located in a muscle and its primary and secondary areas it refers pain to. This means you can look at the chart and see exactly which trigger point is causing you the pain. Of course, it’s not ALWAYS so cut-and-dried, but it’s usually not difficult to figure out.

The red dots indicate propensity for muscles to develop trigger points in that location.  Larger trigger points indicate more common ones, and usually are associated with more pain.

The red dots indicate propensity for muscles to develop trigger points in that location. Larger trigger points indicate more common ones, and usually are associated with more pain.

Trigger points, tight muscles and tight fascia can all be cured. Think of fascia as a hard taffy. If you want to soften taffy, you apply heat and pressure, right? Fascia tissue works the same way: heat and pressure, applied through proper massage, will relieve the tension in your fascia tissue. Trigger points can be worked on very easily by manually applying pressure to the point and waiting for the tension to release.

Who can afford a massage though? And since trigger points develop pretty much weekly for athletes, this is a huge hole in your pocket. Luckily, common sense and some techniques developed by elite athletes and their trainers will save you a ton of money. There’s something called self-myofascial release. I’ll show you exactly how this is done in my next post, but it’s basically a means to massage yourself effectively. You’ll be the best massage therapist you have for yourself anyway, since you know exactly how your body is responding and you can adjust your pressure as needed. Releasing muscles and fascia tissue will make things like shin splints, painful forearms, nerve entrapments and skeletal misalignment go away over a short period of time. It also relieves a lot of pain and leaves you feeling strong and ready to be active again.

Since, I hope, you’re probably really excited about this, here are a few links to satisfy your curiosity while I get to writing the next installment. If you google self-massage, myofascial release, foam rolling or tennis ball therapy, you’ll get excellent results. For now, I suggest you invest in a foam roller (usually about $10) and a few tennis balls. That way, you’ll be ready to go next time. And, the promised links.

I hope this has at least gotten you somewhat excited. If you can get rid of trigger points and loosen your fascia, you can realign yourself and end things like bad joint movement, arthritis pain, nerve entrapments, functional scoliosis, short leg syndrome, and a host of other problems. You’ll feel better almost instantly, too.



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  1. Cool post. Thanks! -barktlysf

  2. Very interesting, looking forward to the next installment. Thank you.

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