Every joint has a range of motion it’s structurally capable of producing. Let’s imagine that as a spectrum:
Moving along that line from the left to the right means the joint is straightening; moving from the right to the left means the joint is bending.
The ends of that line are defined by the structural properties of the pieces that make up the joint: the shape of the bones, the elasticity of the muscles and the tensile strength of ligaments.
There is much more to how a joint moves than its mechanical properties, however; just because the joint can move over a certain range does not mean it will be allowed to. The nervous system is going to have to sign off on that.
From a mechanical perspective, everything beyond the ends of the line represents damage: the consequence of moving the joint beyond its structural capacity.
Your nervous system is really, really good at preventing you from careening past those end points and into “bad news” territory: a skill it develops through a process called “sensorimotor learning.”
See, your bones, muscles and other moving tissues don’t stay the same as you age; not only do they grow in size as you mature, but they change in their function, as well. Your legs don’t do the same job when you’re 9 months old as they do when you’re 32; what’s more, a 32-year-old falconer in Ulaanbaatar uses their legs differently than a 32-year-old salsa dancer in Seattle.
Because of this need for adaptability, it’s not possible to just pre-load the nervous system with all the structural data on your joints; it must be learned as you live.
Your brain is constantly processing real-time information about load, direction, efficacy, structural integrity, and, above all else, safety. This data is compiled into your brain’s understanding of your shape and position in space (commonly known as “proprioception”).
Here’s the tricky part: it takes a huge variety of movements, repeated frequently throughout one’s life, to develop accurate proprioception. If variety or volume of movement data is low, the brain’s map of the joints will be inaccurate.
Essentially, the brain can end up believing that the structural endpoints of a joint’s range of motion aren’t where they really are:
When that happens, the body begins to compensate. And it’s here that I have to tell you that this is, without a doubt, happening to you right now.
Remember, beyond those endpoints—the real ones—is guaranteed damage. If the brain believes that the end points of the joint are in different positions along that line, that means it also believes that damage is guaranteed over a range where the joint is actually safe.
Lots of bad stuff flows from here: the brain begins stealing muscles away from the jobs they’re supposed to be doing and putting them to work “protecting” you from entering the range of motion it believes is dangerous (but really isn’t). Those muscles awkwardly try to do both jobs, creating tension, inflammation and general grumpiness. Over time, that inflammation leads to more joints that can’t achieve their structural range, leading to the exact same process happening all over again in a new location. It’s the pits.
Luckily, it’s not hard to reverse. Here’s how to start:
Secure the joint, don’t challenge it!
Get off the Bosu ball , ease up on the stretching, and take a break from the deep tissue massage. Tense muscles don’t need to be beaten, exhausted or stretched into submission; they need to be introduced to gentle, passive movement. Practice easy mobilizations (preferably unloaded) on a stable, tactile surface.
Example: Releasing the knee
First, to get a baseline for comparison, take a short walk of 20 or 30 steps. Now hop up and down in place. Notice where you feel stiff or tense.
Take a random mix of coins and spread them out on a hard floor. While barefoot, stand one foot on the coins and the other foot on a stable, hard surface. This gives the brain lots of tactile information about the ground your standing on, which creates security.
Now, gently rotate the hips left and right 10 times each direction. Allow the knees to rotate as well, but only as far as they’ll let you go without feelings of strain, stretch or gripping (note: it might be a very small movement). Let the ankle, spine, shoulders and head join the twist, too—again, always well within the range that feels comfortable and free. THIS IS NOT A STRETCH.
Next, take the foot on the coins to the hard floor and the foot on the floor to the coins. Again, practice the same twist 10 times per side, with all the same rules.
Now, come off the coins and practice a normal walking stride. Try hopping up and down in place. Do you notice the change?
For more help, reach out to a Reembody professional!