Humans are incredibly impressive beings. When we have pain in one part of our bodies, we are often able to compensate for that issue without even thinking about it. However, when we compensate for those issues for too long, we adapt to a new way of moving, which can create a lot of problems in the future. When we are not moving optimally, the muscles and joints in our body can be overstressed. This chronic overuse, or overstressing, of the joints in the body, can cause pain after some time.
Let’s use an example to explain this concept. Let’s say you sprain your right ankle on New Year’s Day. It’s not terribly serious, but it is causing you some pain. Because of this pain, you begin to limp to take pressure off of your injured ankle. Based on the healing time of the tissues around the ankle, we can reasonably expect that the tissues themselves are healed and significantly less painful by Valentine’s Day (about six weeks). While the right ankle may be feeling pretty good, your body is still limping because it got acclimated to the limp during the six-month healing process. Limping for six weeks or more would place a significant amount of increased stress on the left side of the body. Think about the mechanics of walking for a second. If your right ankle hurts, you will put less weight on it, and spend less time on that ankle. This means you are putting more pressure and spending more time on the left ankle. This increased stress can lead to an overuse type of injury to the left side of the body, particularly in the hip. Why the hip? Because your left ankle is not the only part of your left side taking on more weight. Your hip is getting a lot of extra work as well!
Now, imagine sometime in late February the right ankle is stiff and sore but has improved enough that you can use it normally. However, you now have a painful left hip from the limp and compensations stemming from the original ankle injury. The hip is now more bothersome than the ankle, so you subconsciously change the way you walk yet again. This time you sway your trunk/core side to side slightly to take some of the stress off of the hip. It works fairly well for a few weeks, but because you were barely using the right hip during the first 6 weeks (due to the original limping), the trunk lean is causing an uneven shift in weight between your right and left hips. This uneven trunk leaning has taken some stress away from the hip on the left side, but added stress to the spine. The trunk sway you used to relieve pressure on the right hip is now excessively bending and rotating your lower back. By early April, the right ankle still feels stiff and sore, your hips bother you from time to time, and your back is bothering you daily. All because you hurt your right ankle three months ago. Luckily, somehow, these aches and pains are only a nuisance, and they are probably not enough to affect your job or home life. You have made it three months without seeking care of any kind, and you are still fully functional for daily life. Your body has effectively managed the issue!
This is the amazing thing about humans. We are able to subconsciously change a pattern that has been built in for years, and it allows us to survive and keep moving. This was likely a great thing when we hunted for every meal and only lived 30-50 years. Those small aches and pains from compensation did not last all that long because our lives were not all that long. But it’s now 2018 and we are living 75+ years. So, one small correction, like a limp for an injured ankle, can lead to chronic hip and back problems that may last for decades. Those corrections help us in the short term, but over the longer period of our now-extended lifespans, the corrections start to take their toll and lead to chronic issues years down the road. This is why it is important to get your movements back to normal as soon as possible during and after an injury. The longer your body naturally compensates for pain, the more likely it is for those natural compensations to lead to bigger, more global issues over time.
Many times, people put off their minor injuries, leading to this chain of compensations. I hear it a lot in my over-50 population… “I’m stiff and sore all over, and it has been there for a couple of years.” Maybe as you read this you’re thinking to yourself, “this sounds like me, what can I do about it?” The best thing you can do is schedule an appointment with us at Judice Sports & Rehab. We can evaluate you and see exactly what the source of your symptoms are. In the example above, we likely would have been able to prevent the months of discomfort and pain with just a few treatments within a few weeks of the original right ankle injury. When people compensate around their injuries and pains, they are treating the symptoms (pain), rather than treating the source of the discomfort (stiffness, swelling, weight-bearing intolerance, poor movements). If you are treating the symptoms, you will always be treating the symptoms, because the source has never been dealt with properly. A thorough physical therapy evaluation will help find the source of your pain. We can then treat the source of the problem to prevent the symptoms from returning in the future, getting you back to a normal movement pattern that balances the forces among all of the joints.
While necessity is certainly the mother of invention, it’s probably best if we leave out human anatomy and physiology when discussing how beneficial it can be. Without dealing with your pains and dysfunctions early, you may reach a point where you need medications or surgery to help with the symptoms. Don’t let it get that far out of hand. We can help!
-Dr. Greg Judice
Call 636-686-0503 to speak with a physical therapist, to see if we can help