When it comes to the best way to heal from chronic muscle and joint pain there's a lot of differing opinions out there. What you believe may be the result of misconceptions and half-truths based on a symptom versus root cause of the problem approach.
If you ask your doctor, your friends, your mom, you are bound to hear some advice that affects what you believe about your ability to heal.
As a Corrective Exercise Specialist who works to help people overcome chronic muscle and joint pain, I truly believe the human body has the ability to heal if given the right matrix of opportunity.
Because I get to assist and help clients apply it, I am blessed (and biased I'll admit) to watch it happen on a daily basis. It takes work and patience, and in a culture that wants a pill or instant fix, this path certainly isn't for everyone. But, in my experience, it seems that more people than not, don't want to medicate or have surgery if possible.
When you identify a root cause of the pain problem (joint dysfunction/misalignment) versus medicating or treating a pain symptom, healing CAN and DOES happen. Correcting the movement patterns, muscle balance and overall postural position, those things in conjunction with good nutrition, quality sleep patterns and ways to balance out one's emotional health, the body can and does indeed heal.
Some say that relieving pain is as simple as improving your posture. There are others that say pain relief and good posture comes from strengthening you "core", and others say good posture (or lack thereof) has more to do with your genetic inheritance.
So what is the truth versus misconception?
Through observation, practice and practical application with my own clients I've learned the following:
- Posture matters! However, improving posture to eliminate chronic pain requires more than simply being mindful about sitting or standing up straight. An effective plan incorporates postural analysis, self myo-fascial release, specific stretches and corrective exercises that are taught to you, coached and sequenced for each person's individual needs/learning style. When combined with good nutrition, proper rest and a reduced stress environment, your body can heal.
- No matter what the modality selected, effective chronic muscle and joint pain relief programs are all founded on the principles of good posture alignment and proper biomechanics.
- You can't simply blame your genetics, stop moving altogether, eliminate/switch activities, or take the traditional medicine route (medication, manipulation or surgical option) and hope to get rid of pain and improve your posture. Those choices avoid the big question. What is the root cause of poor posture, chronic pain and/or limitations in performance.
Posture truly matters, although the ability to find and maintain good posture, is not as easy as it might seem. I've read hundreds of different articles by educators and trainers in the field discussing their differing viewpoints on the connection between posture, pain relief and how the two impact activities of daily living and athletic performance.
So what is fact and what is a misconception when it comes to your ability to heal from chronic muscle and joint pain?
1. Misconception: Age causes joints to wear down
It is certainly true that over time, your joints can wear down due to friction, misalignment (think muscle and joint imbalances) and resulting inflammation in the joints. If you do nothing to address or correct the improper position and function of the joint, then the joint will inevitably wear down.
However, have you ever considered what causes the imbalance(s)?
Professionally, I do not believe that age is a true indicator of joint wear and tear. It naturally makes sense that as one ages, the joints can wear out, however, I've seen joints completely wear out in very young people. So what's the difference? In my experience, the majority of individuals who require joint replacements at any age, have gotten into this situation as a result of poor posture and movement mechanics.
It is crucial that you understand that when the the body compensates for muscle and imbalances and joint dysfunctions to create movement, wear and tear naturally occurs in the joints because they are pulled out of their optimal position and function. The body has no other option but to send out an inflammatory response and over time pain signals.
The structural damage occurs because the bones are forced to work in a position they are not designed to perform. Grinding through a dysfunctional range of motion wears the joint out.
If you address and correct the surrounding connective tissue, length-tension relationship of the muscles acting on and crossing the joint, along with the joint position itself, you can create an environment to help the body restore functional movement to the body. When you combine this with good nutrition, adequate rest, and minimizing stress (think bio-psycho-social), your joint surfaces have an excellent chance to heal and regenerate.
2. Misconception: It's the activity that causes the pain so you should quite moving.
So many people are told that the activity is dangerous and causes the pain.
I completely disagree! The human body is designed for movement. As a Corrective Exercise Specialist, my job is to assess your body position and function in movement. I do not believe that any specific exercise is the culprit. It is ALWAYS the body you take into the activity that needs to be analyzed.
When you move your body through a compromised manner, undue stress and load are added to the connective tissues, muscles and joint surfaces. Over time, pain occurs.
Just think about your feet for example. Simple loading, moving and landing differently on one foot over the other causes a myriad of compensations throughout the entire kinetic chain. Simply turning one or both feet out like a duck, or having an ankle roll in for stability can create problems through the knee, hip, pelvis, spine, shoulders, neck and head. While you may not feel that anything is wrong, those kinetic changes can lead to muscle or joint pain in any of the areas. The problem is that the pain is often not signaled to your brain, until your body has been in these compensating patterns for a very long time. It's one of the beautiful and problematic things the body does.
This explains why you do your much loved activity for years on end, and then one day, you feel pain. It's so easy for your loved ones to say that "running is bad for your knees", or "CrossFit is dangerous". You were able to do those activities for a long period of time, but perhaps misread or ignored the subtle signs and symptoms for way too long, until one day your body said enough.
So is it really the activity that is dangerous, or the body going into the activity?
When you correct the muscle length-tension relationship, movement and joint positions, it is possible to return to the activity you love and move efficiently and without pain. But it will require some time to unlearn poor movement mechanics. If you're willing to do it, it is very possible to get back to the activities you love to do, without pain.
3. Misconception: Stretching is essential to movement and athletic performance
Stretching just for the sake of stretching can certainly help a person feel better in the moment, BUT, as stated above, it is always the body going into the movement that matters more.
If you are doing nothing to address your body POSITION, then stretching muscles on a misaligned frame can very often be a waste of time and worse, do more harm than good.
Instead, your postural position (think joint alignment) should be organized as close to it's intended design and function BEFORE going into movement. From a static position, your feet and ankles anchor your, with with knees, hips directly over them, and shoulders and head stacked in a balanced way in all three plains of movement.
Muscles have a fixed length of fibers that rely on the ability to contract and relax. Combined with how joint position and connective tissues surrounding them act, stretching doesn't always give the body the desired result.
By having your posture and movement function assessed, a CES can quickly determine if a muscle group is stuck in an overly lengthened or shortened position, and then help you come up with SMR mobilizations to begin the healing process to the affected areas.
Then you can begin adding in specific and appropriate stretches and corrective exercises to help the body return to their proper function and position in a progressive sequence. Think static before active.
Balancing the dynamic tension of the body, is far more powerful and effective in improving performance than a series of stretching movements that attempt to “stretch” or lengthen a muscle that is already stuck at maximum length.