We’ve learned a lot about how nerves and the central nervous system work so far. But I thought it time to address some of the bigger picture by looking at how movement is such a necessity for the entire body…including nerves!
Movement is a delicate subject for folks who deal with pain every day. Not only does pain just plain make it harder to carry out your usual activities, the brain and the body have often learned that movement is something that can make pain worse, thereby triggering anxiety and stress as a way to keep you from further hurting yourself. While the protective forces of your brain’s responses are very necessary and need to be respected, this type of movement-avoidance can often make things worse. By losing functional movements, stiffening the joints, and deconditioning the muscles, lack of movement can hinder progress towards a healthier body at large.
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Your Body Wants To Move
In all its infinite wisdom, our bodies are programmed to move around. To drive this idea home, let’s use at example.
Say you’re on your way into your house and you notice a gorgeous sunset happening…so you pop a squat on your steps to take it all in. But your steps are made out of cement and after several moments, your rear end is saying to you, “Yeah, that’s a pretty sunset and all…but is it really worth it?” Game over for the sunset.
How does this really happen?
All the tissues in your body, down to individual cells, have some sort of forces acting on them all the time…whether you’re aware of it or not. And that means that even when you’re sitting perfectly still, your cells are busy doing their jobs. Part of the outcome of them busting their chops for you is that they make byproducts of normal metabolism. When your cells have been busy doing their thing but you’ve just been sitting there (like on your rock-hard steps), the byproducts–which include compounds that are acidic–build up in the surrounding tissues. (You’ve likely heard about “acid build-up” in the muscles after periods of activity. It is similar here.)
These byproducts act on the nerves in the area which signal to your brain that you really should do something about these obnoxiously hard sitting surface. When ignored, your tissues, nerves, and brain will intensify the signal in an attempt to get you to make some changes.
Now, that’s kind of a silly example. But have you ever stood up from your computer to find yourself with a full blown tension headache? In most cases, your body was throwing up signals to move hours ago and the end result of ignoring those was a serious pain in the neck.
Your body and brain will go a long way to keep you from seriously injuring yourself by not moving. But your tissues often can only take so much damage before they begin to break down. A scary example of tissues sending off signals without an appropriate response can be seen in people who develop bed sores from immobility in bed. This is why hospitals have created rules to rotate and move immobile patients to a different position every 1-2 hours in the hospital…whether you feel it or not, your body needs movement to thrive!
Getting More Specific
Next let’s focus on individual parts of the body and how movement is integral to their proper function.
Your Joints On Movement:
The joints in your body such as the shoulder, elbow, hips, knees, and ankles need movement to remain mobile enough to help you carry out your desired tasks. Movement of the joints helps to distribute the synovial fluid (the fluid that keeps your joints lubricated) and the compressive forces that movement causes on your joints helps give the impetus for cartilage maintenance. Additionally, various compression forces on your joints during different types of movement helps keep your brain engaged and aware of what is happening locally in your joints…which helps keep them from harm in the future!
Your Muscles On Movement:
Muscles are some of the most flexible, adaptive, and fun (!) tissues in the body…after all, you can’t dance, run, or play without their constant hard work. Moving muscles stimulates their rebuilding process and keep them from deconditioning. Additionally, muscles are intimately linked (both physically and metaphorically) to the peripheral nerves. Moving the muscles allows the nerves to slide as well. Tight muscles can even impinge nerves and cut off their blood supply, causing more and more pain in the long run!
Your Skin On Movement
The movement of skin, much like muscles, promotes good blood flow to all peripheral areas, upkeeps quality messaging between the brain and the tissues, and provides feedback to the surrounding neurons about how they should be responding to the current environment. If you’re ever had a good massage, you know how much mobilizing the skin (and muscles) can impact the entire body (but emphasis on the central nervous and immune system)!
Your Spine On Movement
Before we can really get to the effects of proper movement on spine health, it’s important that we talk a tiny bit about anatomy.
Nerves that come in to synapse at the spine (if you’ve forgotten some basic anatomy, check out the post titled Getting On Your Nerves) meet first at something called the Dorsal Root Ganglion. The dorsal root ganglia can be thought of mini control centers that first filter all the information that’s making its way up to the brain. See illustration below.
You have many dorsal root ganglia, all up and down your spine.
From the last illustration, you can clearly see that the dorsal root ganglia are in close contact with the spinal cord and spinal column. This means that any disturbance in the structure of the spine or associated tissues can impinge on the dorsal root ganglia. Disturbances in the dorsal root ganglia can inhibit or diminish normal nerve signaling, impulse transmission, and sensor regulation. (To learn all about sensors, check out this post.) Compression and impingement of the dorsal root ganglia often start out tansiently; if you’ve ever sat with your head way too far forward for a prolonged period of time (like while using the computer or driving), you’ll know that even that a small period of time of immobility will irritate the dorsal root ganglia and cause major pain. Long-term damange…now that really hurts.
In any case, both the bones in your spine and the entering nerves/spinal cord need movement to stay properly mobile and flexible. The lack of movement can cause pain immediately, and worsen quickly over time.
Now, I already hear a bunch of people with pain say, “I want to move, but I can’t without causing myself major pain!” And I hear you. I really do. The key to movement is to find APPROPRIATE movement.
If you can sit for 2 minutes and then lie back down without it causing a flare up in your pain, than 2 minutes sitting up is all you should do. Let’s say you can’t sit up at all without having pain. How about if you try to bring your knees up to your chest while laying down? It mimics the process of sitting but without all the forces of gravity. It tells your body, “Hey, a sitting posture doesn’t HAVE to mean pain.” And this type of conditioning can help your brain realize that not every movement is cause of alarm. Let’s say you can’t pull both legs up to your chest but can do one leg, half way. That’s great! Start there and see where how things progress. See what I’m getting at? Break movements down into smaller sections or think about ways in which you can modify movements so that you can move your body without setting you back.
Are You Reading This While Sitting Down?
The irony of the fact that I’m sitting here blogging about this is not lost on me (I’ve been switching between kneeling, sitting cross legged and as a supported squat on the BOSU ball…all to try to move differently!). The irony that you’re probably sitting down to read this on your computer or phone isn’t lost of me either. So now that you’re done…go get a little movement in!