If you deal with hip and knee pain, then there are options for you before resorting to surgery. Improving joint health takes time, dedication, and a good plan.
X-rays and MRI’s: just a picture
X-rays, MRIs, CT Scans, etc. are an important part of diagnosing what is happening in our bodies. They provide us with information and can help direct which treatment options are best. When it comes to joint health it is important to remember that, as helpful as x-rays and MRIs can be, they are just a picture and don’t always tell the full story of how our joints work in everyday life.
We’ll get into that more in a later blog post, but overall, just know how a joint looks on x-ray or MRI and how it acts are two different things.
When it comes to joint health, our definition is a little different. We focus more on how the joint moves, how strong and stable it is, and most importantly, how it affects what you do in your daily life. In other words, how the joint acts. There is not much that can be done to change how a joint looks (other than surgery), but in our definition of joint health there is much that can be done to change how the joint feels, and ultimately how it acts.
What You Can Do to Improve Joint Health
There are numerous supplements on the market for joint pain that reduce inflammation, and in some cases, rebuild cartilage. These supplements certainly have value in improving joint health but are centered more on how the joint looks and feels, not how it acts. That’s not to say how a joint looks and feels is not important, but in our experience, it’s not as important as how the joint acts. Remember joint health=how the joint acts.
So, what can you do to improve joint health? We believe it boils down to retraining the system that controls our joints, the Neuromuscular System. One of the tasks of the Neuromuscular System is to protect our bodies when it thinks that something bad is happening or going to happen. In regards to our joints, It does this by “shutting the joint down”. When the Neuromuscular System gets the signal that something is wrong in a joint, it will weaken the muscles, tighten the tissue around, and sometimes produce pain in the joint. It does this as a form of protection. The problem is it does way too good a job of protecting. It’s like the system is saying, “I don’t know what is going on but shut it down! Because if nothing happens, then nothing else bad can happen!” What we’ve learned over the years, is if you can keep this signal from being sent, thus making the joint feel safe, the joint will act more like it’s supposed to regardless of what it looks like on the inside.
This is done through a three-step process:
1) Resetting the system
2) Improving how the joint moves through increased flexibility and joint mobility
3) Improving the strength and stability around the joint through exercise
Resetting the System
Think of the Neuromuscular System as a set of scales, with good information to the system on one side, and bad information to the system on the other. The goal in resetting the system is to put more things on the good information side than the bad, thus tilting the scales in your favor. Sometimes, the changes to the good information side can be small. Getting better rest, a healthier diet or just plain moving around more all can put more weight on the good information side of the scales. However, if there is a significant amount of stuff on the bad information side, professional help might be needed to help you reset the system. This could come in the form of Chiropractic, Massage, or Physical Therapy with an emphasis on Manual Therapy.
Flexibility v. Mobility
While they may seem the same, there is a difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility is improving the “stretchiness” of the muscles that surround the joint. For instance, stretching the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf to help the knee. Flexibility exercises have been around for a while, and there are numerous resources available to help you stretch effectively. The key is to find the safest, most effective way that works best for you and your body. Mobility involves improving how the joint itself moves. This is done by stretching the tissue that surrounds the joint (the joint capsule) and then, while it is being stretched, moving the joint in a way that reminds the system what normal movement should feel like. One of the best resources we have found for doing this on your own is Kelly Starrett and his group at The Ready State. Although his stuff is directed towards more of the athletic population, it works well for almost everybody.
A Holistic View of Strengthening The Body
After the joint begins to work like it’s built to, then you can move towards improving first stability and then strength. We view stability as getting the muscles around the joint to contract together, at the same time improving the communication between the joint and the Neuromuscular System. Whether it be the muscles around the knee, hip, or shoulder, the deep core muscles, the deep muscles in your neck, any part of the body really, the main point is to get the joint back to receiving and sending out the information properly. Simply put, the goal is to hold the joint in a safe, pain-free position, with good form, and hold that position as long as you can (think of sitting against a wall, or holding yourself in a push-up position). Not only does this remind the muscles how to do their job, but it also lets the Neuromuscular System know that whatever muscles you are using are now on board and can be called upon when life happens. Once that process has started, you can begin to build strength. We could write multiple blogs on strength building, and will, but that’s best saved for another time. In short, building strength helps the joint and the system tolerate all of the different stresses your everyday life throws at it. The stronger the joint and system, the more it can take. We believe life requires strength. It’s important at this time to not neglect the rest of your body while you work on one specific joint. Although it may be one joint that is giving you grief, nothing in the body acts in isolation, and the whole system should be trained (remember the scales analogy from above). Finally, once you start this process, don’t stop!
It’s true that surgery is sometimes inevitable. If you’ve been on the earth long enough, joints can deteriorate, arthritis can develop, and gravity doesn’t really care who you are and what you’ve done to try to prevent it. Hopefully, you now know that if you can make your joints feel safe and protected by resetting the system, improving flexibility and mobility, and improving stability and strength, you can get your joints to act differently than they look. At the very least, if you have to have surgery your recovery will be much easier because you’ve trained your system to handle it.
We hope you have found this post helpful. If you can think of someone else that might be helped by it, please feel free to share it with them. Also, if this has spurred any questions about the neuromuscular system, your joints, stretching, building stability/strength, or exercise in general, feel free to drop us a line at the email below. We’d be more than happy to help out. It’s why we are here.
Stay moving, stay building, and keep adding things to the good side of the scales