Jack Lalanne, the famous fitness advocate, said, “The only way to hurt your body is by not using it!” This is as true for each joint as it is for the whole person. Restricted or abnormal joint function affects the body in many ways. This paper discusses what occurs in the cartilage, ligaments, muscles, and nervous system when a joint is dysfunctional, and how chiropractic treatment changes joint dynamics to restore function.
In tissue such as skin or muscle, injuries can be rapidly repaired due to the nutrient-rich blood supply to these tissues. Joint cartilage (the smooth, glass-like surface that covers the bone) has no direct blood supply. Motion is absolutely necessary for cartilage to receive the nutrients that it needs to maintain and rejuvenate itself. The process by which cartilage receives its nutrients is similar to wringing out a sponge in the sink, then letting it expand again while immersed in water. Similarly, when a joint closes, waste products are “squeezed” out. When the joint opens, new, nutrient-laden fluids are drawn in.
When a joint becomes restricted in its normal movement pattern it becomes deprived of nutrients. In fact, an immobilized joint begins to degenerate and dehydrate after only 2 days! When you wake up with a “crook” in your neck, or get a sore back after a weekend of yard work, joints have become restricted in their motion and cartilage health begins to suffer. Over the years it becomes easier and easier to aggravate the joint and early degenerative changes occur. In human cadaver dissections degenerative spinal joints contain fibrous adhesions (motion-restricting scar tissue) ranging from single, sinewy strands (these look like dental floss), to fibrous mats that prevent movement altogether. Further, we know that motion alone is not enough to sustain a joint. Healthy, normal movement patterns are needed. Unrestricted, abnormal joint motion has been shown to accelerate cartilage degeneration.
Pain, unfortunately, is often the last symptom to appear in a joint that does not move freely (this is due to the fact that cartilage has minimal pain nerves). Such a joint will often cause compensations in other joints, muscle tightness and weakness, and actual degenerative changes in both joints and muscles before pain is perceived.
Chiropractic adjustments restore healthy movement patterns by breaking up adhesions in joints and freeing restrictions to motion. Chiropractic also changes the nerve pattern in and around the joint, but we’ll discuss that later. These changes not only makes you feel better quickly, they allow the joint to attain the nourishment through movement that joint health depends upon.
Ligaments provide passive support to joints. They “check” joint movement by keeping joints within their safe limits of motion. A healthy ligament is incredibly strong. Pound for pound ligament tissue has a stronger tensile strength than steel. Restriction of joint movement causes ligaments to shorten (ligamentous contracture) and weaken. A sprained ligament heals with scar tissue that restricts joint movement. The result is a perpetuation of decreased motion and an increased susceptibility to injury. Thus, a sprained ankle will often heal with a restricted movement pattern. This pattern can change the way you walk and move, affecting the knees, hips, and low back. If these patterns continue pain and actual tissue changes begin. If, on the other hand, the sprained ankle is mobilized and “adjusted” soon after the injury, the normal motion pattern is restored and the chain of events described above is stopped in its tracks.
After joint restrictions are treated with chiropractic adjustments it is important to stretch shortened ligaments to maintain and even increase function. This is where stretching and exercise play an important role. With the simple practice of a few well-chosen stretches motion and joint health are maintained.
Ligament and cartilage are the “passive” components of the joint. Muscle is the “active” component. Muscle is red because it has a rich blood supply. For this reason a strained muscle will heal faster and more completely than a sprained ligament (ligaments take several months to heal, whereas muscle takes about 1-2 months). Muscle has the ability to react more quickly to joint dysfunction than passive tissues such as cartilage and ligament. Sitting in an odd or strained position throughout the day causes muscle to react to the prolonged strain. If you sit hunched over at a computer all day long you begin to feel the tightness and discomfort from unhappy muscles in your upper back and neck, perhaps even your lower back. If you sit that way day after day you shorten the muscles and ligaments in the front of your body and stretch the muscles and ligaments in the back of your body. This change in length actually changes the way you use your muscles to accomplish even the simplest movements. The tight muscles become overactive—they fire more often and in a less coordinated way than they should. The stretched muscles become weak and lazy (they gladly relinquish their work to the tight muscles). This results in unnatural movement patterns which stress and damage joints even during simple activities such as walking.
The result? A frame that no longer knows what healthy posture and movement is. The body is actually distorted by the chronic strain.
Motion is the key to healthy, well-nourished joints. Bob Anderson, the author of a popular book on stretching, calls the stiffness and degeneration of inactivity “creeping rigor mortis”. Movement nourishes each and every tissue in your body. Think about it. Your cartilage, connective tissues, and muscles receive their nutrients in abundance with motion—they stiffen and deteriorate with inactivity. Venous, oxygen-deprived blood is pushed heart-ward by muscular contraction and relaxation. Your heart muscle, like any other muscle, is nourished and strengthened by strenuous activity. Your lungs become conditioned and invigorated as you place a demand on them by exercising your body. Movement massages all bodily organs, and the brain stimulates many organs hormonally during exercise. Your body burns fuel during exercise, eliminates wastes, and allows you to take in more life-giving nutrients. The brain itself changes its patterns during exercise and movement as hormones are released to stimulate the body and mind. Best yet, your spirits are nourished by movement.
Chiropractic and Motion
The role of chiropractic is to ensure the optimal function of each joint, and of the nervous system as a whole. This is especially relevant in the spine for many reasons. First, there are nearly one hundred joints in the spine. These joints make up a complex system where joints in one area can become too mobile to make up for joints in another area that are restricted in their motion. As an analogy, consider a long piece of chain containing many links. If this chain is grasped at either end and twisted back and forth the motion will be relatively evenly distributed throughout the chain. Now imagine that a few links within the chain become rusty—these are restricted joints. If the chain is twisted back and forth repetitively the forces will no longer be distributed evenly. Excess motion will take place in the moveable links, and no motion will take place in the rusty ones. As a result the excessively moveable links wear quickly, and each link in the chain is forced into a compromised movement pattern. The links adjacent to the rusty links are most affected. Exactly the same process takes place in the spine. Spinal joints become restricted (“rusty”) in their motion for many reasons—injury, chronic postural strain, congenital defects, repetitive actions like sports or work, and even stress. Recall from the discussion above that both lack of movement and abnormal movement take their toll on all elements of the joint—cartilage, ligament, disc, and muscle.
Now, with our rusty chain analogy, imagine directing a force into the rusty links to free up their motion. This has the effect of normalizing the movement throughout the chain. A chiropractic adjustment targets a restricted joint and frees its motion. This not only affects the joint that is manipulated, but also has far reaching effects throughout the spine and extremities.
Chiropractic and the Nervous System
The spine is not only a complicated system of joints that allows us to bend, twist, absorb shock and move freely, it is the “housing” of a large part of our nervous system. Every “wire” that leaves your brain to communicate with your joints, muscles, organs, arteries and veins, skin, etc., travels through your vertebral column.
Most of these wires go through a “switching box” in your spine just before they exit to go to their target tissue. This can lead to some confusion in your nervous system. Let us use a kidney stone as an example. If you are so unfortunate as to have a kidney stone, your first symptom will often be intense back pain. Why is this? Why doesn’t your body perceive the pain deep in your abdomen where your ureters are desperately trying to pass the stone? The answer is this; the nerves from the ureters come into the same “switchbox” (actually called a wide-dynamic-range neuron) as the nerves servicing the joints/muscles/ligaments etc. in your back. Your body can confuse the two messages and perceive that the pain is actually coming from the back. This scenario can happen anywhere in the spine since nerves exit at every level. Dysfunction in your upper neck, for instance, can cause a whopping, migraine-like headache. Dysfunction in your mid-back can cause stomach and upper bowel problems. Dysfunction in your pelvis can lead to lower bowl and/or menstrual problems.
In short, the nervous system is nourished by movement. The more we learn about neuroscience, the more we understand and appreciate the importance of chiropractic care. Abundant scientific research is available to support the importance of chiropractic care in the maintinance and restoration of health.
Most importantly of all, the proof is in the pudding. Over the past 100 years chiropractic has grown and flourished due to the results achieved in chiropractic patients. Chiropractic is now the second largest system of health care in the United States. Recent research into different forms of care for injured workers shows that chiropractic patients return to work in half the time, at half the cost, and with one ninth of the disability of medically treated patients.
These excellent results are achieved in an environment that supports holistic health. Patients are not “just sore backs”; they are whole people. Your mind, body, and Spirit exist together in a complicated weave where imbalance in any aspect of your being affects all aspects. Beyond masking pain with pills, or goading the body into changing its chemistry with medication, chiropractic care clears the path for the perfect health that is your natural state. The ultimate goal of chiropractic care is to promote healthy, happy people, families, and communities through excellent health care.