Is This Tiger Really Stretching?

Every morning when my dog gets up he does this same pose that the tiger is doing here. But is it really a stretch? If you think about it, stretching is when you reach for something, going beyond the normal range of motion you do in normal everyday activities.

Merriam-Webster defines the word stretch in a few ways:

-to make (something) wider or longer by pulling it
-to put your arms, legs, etc., in positions that make the muscles long and tight

Well, that is indeed interesting. A long muscle, in anatomy language, is the antithesis of tight. A long muscle is considered to be at rest, or relaxed. Of course, Merriam-Webster is far from being Gray’s Anatomy. Yet, it illustrates that some confusion exists in our modern world regarding something as simple as a stretch.

If you carefully watch an animal go into the tiger’s position in the photo, you’ll notice that it is more going into a “pulling together” from head-to-tail along it’s back, rather than a pulling apart which would be a typical stretch, moving toward length. So, is the tiger, in fact, stretching? One might stop and think about it. Could it be contracting the long, muscles of the back, followed by a slow voluntary “letting go” of that tightness? It seems to result in true relaxation, as is often apparent on the face of the animal.

True relaxation would be a very nice response after doing an activity such as stretching, yet for many active stretching results in more tension and/or pain. If you are one of those people, try what the tiger is “really” doing. Bring the two ends of the muscle(s) closer together rather than pulling them apart. If you were to do this with your biceps muscle, for example, you would lie on your back, arms alongside your body, palms up and slowly bend your elbow, lifting your hand up only an inch or two. Then, you’d slowly release that tension by letting your arm/hand come back down for a nice, soft landing, taking about 15-30 seconds. That is how you lengthen your biceps, and it feels good! It also lengthens the muscle so it has more contraction power when you use it, because there isn’t residual background tension being held 24/7 due to repetitive use, etc. As you repeat this move, you’ll actually feel that you can raise your hand with less effort (which means more power). Now, you can feel what the tiger is really doing — contracting and releasing its muscles to keep them in proper working order. Active stretching is quite the opposite.

Double Knee Replacements Are on the Rise

This week’s Wall Street Journal reports that bilateral knee surgeries are on the rise. Laura Landro reported, “The rate of knee replacements in the U.S. has almost doubled from 2000-2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and now exceeds 700,000 procedures a year.”

Landro cited, “A 2013 study in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery estimated the cost of bilateral surgery at $43,401 compared with $72,233 for two separate surgeries staged over time. They study concluded that bi-lateral surgery is more cost-effective with better outcomes for the average patient than staged procedures for two knees.”

As health care costs rise, there will undoubtedly be a need to decrease costs, and it’s obvious that bilateral replacement saves a significant amount.

But, as with any surgery, there are situations where this surgery is not advised. Some hospitals won’t do the surgery for people who have “any type of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and those over the age of 80.”

For those in the risk category above, Hanna Somatics may be worth a try. Muscle tension is the leading causes of pain in the human body. What might seem like joint pain, may also be tight muscles that are essentially compressing and grinding the joint, such as overly tight quadriceps and hamstrings. If they’re fighting a “tug-of-war” battle in the legs the knee joint can become compromised.  Hanna Somatics is an education process where you learn what muscles are overly tight and causing problems and you learn how to release that tension for yourself.

Often, I see that clients who are suffering from knee pain also have tightness in their back, belly and/or hips. Over time that tension can travel down to the knees and eventually to the feet. Obviously, a sudden injury where the knee is directly impacted can cause bone/joint injury that may require surgery. But, not all knee pain is necessarily caused by a bad joint, per say. It could be that the quads/hamstrings are being pulled from tight muscles higher in the body and they hold the knee joint in an uncomfortable position that can be extremely uncomfortable when moving/walking.

Even if you are scheduled for knee replacement surgery, Hanna Somatics is advised before/after surgery so that the muscles that are reattached to the new joint are well balanced at the knee. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of that “tug-of-war,” happening in your body and replace it with a nice, smooth gait?

Is Core Strength Really the Answer to Back Pain, or Are We Living in a World of Core Confusion?

Many people suffering from back pain have been told that the answer is to build up strength in their core muscles. Before you run to the gym, yoga or pilates studio, ask yourself one question. What if your core muscles are already strong, just not in the way you’re used to hearing about it? 
What if you’re living in a virtual “tug of war” in your body, where the back and belly are literally fighting for control? Standing up from sitting can become a chore — as the back muscles and quads try to contract to stand you up, the belly muscles, including the hamstrings are still contracted and effectively “pulling” you back to your chair. It’s a tough situation to recover from by adding more muscle tension to the situation. 
Once you start using your latissimus dorsi to stand you up (placing your hands on chair arms and pushing yourself up) you’re completely changing the normal way in which you would stand up, and most likely sitting will become more a part of your daily life. Once the lats become overworked and overly-tight, what will you use next to stand up?  An automatic chair, perhaps. 
At the beginning of our sessions, during assessment, we palpate muscles, especially in the back. I’ve yet to see a person who has sought help for back pain (and most have previously tried Pilates, yoga or strength training) come in with soft, tension-free back muscles. What I find most often is some degree of “hard to the touch” back muscles – most feel like steel, no bounce left and lots of hypertrophy, muscles pushing up from under the skin, what we see on the cover of muscle magazines as “healthy” muscles. That is the epitome of strength, right? Or is it really? 
Along with that hypertrophy, you often see diminishing levels of flexibility, as muscular holding patterns set in and take over – and these muscles are holding tight as can be – in other words they are really good at their job and they are STRONGLY holding tight! They just are not good at what you would like them to do for you, such as stand you up easily and let you walk as far as you’d like. 
Now imagine, you have that tightness in your back, but you don’t often feel the tension levels rising. We have much less sensory information coming up to the brain from the core muscles than other parts of the body. Often, it’s not until we’re in crisis that we even become aware of overly-tense muscles, unless you see a massage therapist, and they are all to happy to tell you about the tension in your body, and they’re right!
So, you seek help for weak abdominals. Now you’re on the path to building even more tightness in your body but now it’s in the front. Is that optimal? I don’t believe it is. During one class I taught, the manager of a local Pilates studio was in attendance. As I lead the class through Arch and Release, asking them to breathe deep into the belly and let your back slightly arch and belly come up toward the ceiling, she said out loud, “I can’t do this. I’ve learned to breathe through the sides of my ribs.” She had such a tight gut, her diaphragm was no longer taking its full journey through her body — less oxygen when inhaling, less expelling of carbon dioxide during exhaling. OK, so that’s a whole other topic, but you get the picture. 
What’s the answer? Reset these background tension patterns that are running constantly in your brain/nervous system without your conscious consent. Learn how to naturally release tension in your core and back. Here’s a good way to start releasing your back, note that if you’re just beginning, don’t move as much as the model in the photo, rather lift only a bit and work your way up gradually.  
Arch and Release, this movement actively lengthens your muscles through gentle, slow somatic movements combined with breathing. As you inhale, gently arch your back and then SLOWLY relax as you exhale. Try to count to 4-6 on the exhale release, the longer the release, the more your brain relaxes the muscles.   

Could Over-Exercising be a Cause of Back Pain?

I read a recent WSJ article entitled, “How Much Work Can the Back Do Without Strain?” in which Dr. Kee Kim, chief of spinal neurosurgery at UC Davis talked about how to work with your back and not go overboard.

The article starts with some serious stats on back pain in America. Would you believe 80% of American adults complain of back pain? I knew it was high, but that’s epidemic proportions! If you think about it for a moment, you can probably name several people in your life who have suffered from this debilitating pain at some point. And, many get stuck in the pain med cycle, wishing there was another answer, as the side effects over time can be just as bad in their own way as the pain itself.

In our tech-driven country, how can it be that only 20% of American adults are not suffering from this pain? Are they just lucky?

Here is what Dr Kim advises to avoid back pain:

  • Don’t slouch forward (adds twice as much strain on disks)
  • If overweight, lose weight
  • He mentioned a study that said 40% of manual laborers have back pain vs. 18% of sedentary workers
  • You need strong muscles supporting the spine
  • A general rule of thumb is that a fit person should be able to carry one-third of his body weight, as long as it’s balanced evenly
  • Doing lifting exercises can do more harm than good, heavy weight lifting can require hyperextension of the back, putting a lot of stress on the disks

Overall, Dr. Kim’s final advice is:

“But most people can avoid chronic back pain or at least decrease it by elevating core strength and working on their posture.”

After reading this, I decided to do a little research to find out what American’s are doing fitness-wise. Based on this data, it doesn’t look like American’s are sitting around on their couches.

# of tennis players in US in 2014 – 12.29 million
# of soccer players in US in 2014 – 13 million
# of bike riders/cyclists in US in 2014 – 67.33 million
# of people practicing yoga in US in 2014 – 20.4 million
# of hikers in US in 2012 – 34.5 million
# of runners in US in 2013 – 19 million
# of people practicing Pilates in US in 2014 – 11 million
# of health club memberships nationwide in 2012 – 50 million

Add these up, and you get 227.5 million instances of partaking in these forms of exercise. Of course this is not scientific, just a rough estimate based on web searching and there’s bound to be overlap across sports. By the way, the estimated US population in 2015 is 321,163,157. Doesn’t it look like there is a lot of exercising going on across the US? What about the burgeoning field of Sports Medicine? It’s not just for pro-athletes anymore.

How does this data jive with the 80% back pain in American adults? Could there be too much strength-building going on across America? Are people increasing muscular tension so much that they are hurting themselves while trying to get fit? How much does slouching in front of the computer add to the back pain problem?

I can tell you that in my practice, I’ve more than a few people break down and cry after realizing how much they have contributed to their own pain from over-exercising, thinking it was the healthy thing to do. “Just Do It,” right?

In my work, I see a lot of core confusion. People really don’t understand what the core does and how it supports the body’s movement. They often prefer to bulk up first. I will explore this line of reasoning in my next blog post – Core Confusion.

Meralgia Paresthetica – Could Skinny Jeans be the Culprit?

Recently, I had my first client with meralgia paresthetica. I hadn’t come across that before, so I googled it. I read that it occurs when the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve (a sensory nerve) becomes trapped. The pain can be intolerable, as those of us who have felt nerve pain — it can feel like fire ants crawling up and down your leg or red hot pokers jabbing you, very unpleasant. The causes listed online included tight clothing (I suspected that skinny jeans were bad for our health ), obesity, pregnancy, scar tissue, seat belt injury.

I’m often curious about the reasons given for ailments, conditions, itis’s, etc. What I’ve yet to see are tight muscles as the potential problem. Obesity? Really? Talk about making someone feel even worse about themselves! I see just as many thin people as not.

I always start my investigation with a mind toward where’s the lingering “background” muscle tension in the body (being held in the brain)? This tension typically “hides” in muscle after surgery, an accident or some physical trauma, or it could be usage-based such as long periods of sitting or intense cycling, but it’s definitely not something you consciously do with your body.

It’s my job to help shed the fear, and sometimes self-loathing that doesn’t help the situation, and teach the client what moves to do everyday to reset this tension level, lowering it until it fades away. First the pain subsides, then the tension, then full range of movement returns. It’s a process, but one that really works, assuming that muscles are the culprit. So don’t despair when you find yourself with a health problem that seems impossible to work with. Muscles are the most misunderstood topic in health care today. You do have the power to reset, and only you. You have to change your brain, no one can do it for you.