In the U.S., more people endure chronic pain than those who live with cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. From my perspective, much of this pain is literally unnecessary. My reasoning has to do with the way pain is created in your body. Most of the time, pain comes from a long term posture process involving regular but small shifts in position that are supposed to make doing things tolerable. Over time, though, this capacity to adjust for comfort, which is called compensation, or posture compensation, can go awry. And when it does, the posture compensation patterns that result may lead to joint and muscle pain, muscle tension or an elevated risk for conditions like arthritis. They can also up the possibility of an injury.
Posture Compensation Starts with the Segments and Their Joints
When I think of the body, I think in terms of parts that not only link together, but also work together to bring about movement. Each part – like your forearm, thigh, head, etc., is one “segment” of the whole thing. (BTW, “segment” is just a fancy word for a bone or pairs of bones that are moved or affected when joint motion occurs.)
For example, when you bend your elbow, the bones in your forearm (there are two in the forearm) function as one segment and may be brought closer to your upper arm as a result of the flexion action occurring in the elbow joint.
Segments connect to other segments. As mentioned just above, in between the segments are joints, which is where the actual movement happens.
Muscles are attached to segments and they surround the joints; they serve as engines that power movement. You might understand the role of muscles in this case as adding the energy needed to get the part (or segment) to start moving, and also to control the movement that happens between segments (i.e., at the joint.)
Segments That Link Together Make Posture Compensation Patterns Together
Because the whole body is really just a bunch of (ideally) well-fitting segments that together give you posture and movement, the positions the segments take exert influence over one another.
If you hurt your knee, for example, and there’s too much pain when you try to walk normally, you might subconsciously find a way to step – perhaps keeping most of the weight on the outside of your foot, or on your heel, or turning the leg out- that minimizes the discomfort. This, in turn, may change the way your ankle moves, and so on up the line. It can even affect the way your hip works.
BTW, once your hip mechanics change, almost all the other joints are at a higher risk for injury or pain. This is because the way the hips work (or don’t) play very important roles in both posture and movement.
In the short term, posture compensation, which functions as a workaround, solves your problem. You’ve avoided pain and so now you can walk, possibly climb stairs, bend down, etc., without bothering your knee.
But over time, you might notice stiffness or pain in one or more joints, and that you don’t move as well as you used to. This may be because in the process of avoiding knee pain, you’ve compensated the best possible positions of hip, back, ankle and/or foot, and replaced them with misalignment, which, in turn has led to chronic joint strain, pain and more.
Posture Compensation Patterns Can Accumulate
The affects of posture compensation patterns accumulate as they develop. In this case, the misalignment, joint strain, and muscle tension and weakness that tend to come with take a more regional approach. Now more of the body is involved, plus several areas are conspiring,or sort together. So you’ll probably get more pain, have less functionality and possibly an increased risk for an injury or, over time, a medical condition.
And more posture compensation patterns will likely form.
At this point, you’re probably used to some of the new, not-so-great changes and you notice them less. But they’re still there.
Patterns on AutoPilot
We humans tend to be creatures of habit.
You might find your new misaligned state works pretty well for getting you around, once some of the initial symptoms have been relegated to the sub-conscious mind. I call this “habits on autopilot.” It’s normal, but not always good for the body in the long term.
Even a few weeks on autopilot can set the stage for long term posture and pain problems. (For example, if you injure yourself, and you can’t safely use the injured part fully until you’ve been through physical therapy, that’s enough time for the new compensation pattern to set.)
Remember, “the new normal” is not the ideal position. The parts have been shifted are out of alignment. This makes some muscles tense up. (Mind you I did not say get strong.)
As the muscles get chronically tight, nearby muscles may become weak or overstretched. So now the body has to compensate even more to keep you functioning and out of pain. The pain-tension-weakness-pain loop continues until the entire body is one big mass of misalignment and posture compensation patterns.
Kyphosis you might get because you work at a computer is an example of a posture compensation pattern.
You Can Learn Out of This Type of Pain
And it stays like this until you consciously intervene with well-aligned movement. Once you know how to move with balance and alignment, you can practice conscious intervention at home, in the office or on the go. The healing process is very portable!
Along with achieving freedom from pain, replacing posture compensation patterns with good posture practices teaches you – experientially – how your body moves. In my over 20 years working with people in pain, this is a pre-requisite to healing and managing spine and joint conditions. Only after you achieve the body learning in this initial phase can exercise proper give you further therapeutic benefits.