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Twist Away Your Headaches & Muscle Knots

Snowboarder demonstrating twisty goodness

Every day in the clinic I see people who cannot twist. One or both of their arms are not swinging when they walk. (FYI, if you aren´t twisting when you walk there is no need to swing your arms.) It is as though their spines are just moving forward in space, like a robot in one of those 80´s films.

The shoulders are often elevated, or their arms held tight to their sides, giving them a sense of stability. Not someone you want to run into on a crowded crosswalk, but also someone who, most likely, cannot throw far, kick hard, or more importantly...relax.

A rotating human sounds simple enough, but it is quite a dynamic feat. We have 12 ribs on each side of the spine, 7 neck bones, 12 middle back bones, and 5 low back bones which sit on a pelvis that imbeds two leg bones in hip sockets that must all work harmoniously to allow something as basic as walking. We also have two shoulder blades that must slide and glide around a rib cage as arms and spines move. Furthermore, we have a head that must balance on a single bone and wobble and flow as we move.

What happens when one more of those areas becomes dysfunctional or limited? We compensate. We swing one arm or none, we lean to one side, we hold our head in a fixed position, shoulder blades become stabilizers, areas that can move now move too much to make up for the lost areas, we lock ourselves into a posture that we cannot get out of. What happens when joints stop moving? Things start hurting.

What happens when joints stop moving? Things start hurting.

When I get patients that are not responding to their manual therapist or masseuse, I like to ask them about a scenario: Imagine you hold your arm (elbow) at 90 degrees for a week. In no time at all you will notice your bicep muscle becoming stiff and painful. Is the answer to get that muscle worked on? Massage and rub it with tools? No. The answer is...move the elbow. Straighten it, bend it maximally...and every other degree in between. And if it the elbow hasn´t permanently locked into that position it should quickly recover and feel normal again.

Now sticking with this analogy. Many people have this non-moving fixed elbow joint...but in their spine, neck and head, shoulder blade, hip, or rib-cage. And what happens to that soft-tissue that attaches to all those bones? It gets irritated. Joints must move so that muscles can live fulfilled lives.

Joints must move so that muscles can live fulfilled lives.

Rehab WHY things hurt, not WHAT is hurting

When I was in chiropractic school we had several classes on techniques to deal with muscle knots, most commonly along the thoracic spine / between the shoulder blades. We learned massage techniques, ischemic compression, hot and cold contrast, e-stim, etc... However, I solidly remember thinking during one particular class..."Where the hell do these knots come from in the first place!?"

One way to understand this concept a bit deeper is to look at adventitious bursae.

Bursae in the knee

A bursa is a sack of synovial fluid that naturally forms in areas of high friction. We all have them, and we all need them. When one becomes unhappy we get bursitis. What is unusual is the formation of adventitious bursae. These are not natural and form on a specific individuals in areas of high stress and friction, usually near bony points. They are a clear sign of abnormal friction where the body hasn't already planned to have a bursa. A problem creates the bursa, the bursa doesn't create the problem.

Muscle knots are not the problem. What created them is.

The human body likes being neutral. Like a gear level in the car, it is free to move in all directions. And similar to a gear lever, they can become fixed in a certain position and require force and effort to move. Additionally, you cannot always drive your car in 5th gear. You need all the gears depending on the situation. Muscles will not be comfortable being short all the time. Or long all the time. Or being pulled on constantly. They appreciate neutrality. Happy muscles stretch and shorten, then come to rest near neutral. They relax when we sleep or rest. Unhappy muscles are forced into a position they cannot get out of. They stay active when you sleep. Knots are a result of this imbalance.

So to arrive at our main do you keep muscles happy? You keep them, and the joints they cooperate with, moving and neutral. Easier said than done. Maybe if we still lived in the wild as say a cheetah does in the savannah of Africa...we wouldn't have so many issues, maybe just a few scratches and accidental sprained ankles.

But this isn´t 5000 years ago, so one of the best ways we can keep our body happy and still do our 8 hour shift at the bank, teach elementary school all day, or build that tech to twist.

Interested in more? Want a full program on fixing shoulder blade knots, neck pain, headaches, and upper back? Let us know in comments or social media.

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