Years ago, before or during PT school I think, I was talking to my friend Will about exercises we did to stay in shape. I told him, in amazement, how everything in my body was stronger and less achy when I kept up with core exercises.
“Well, yeah Tim…That’s why they call it The Core,” he said, with a bug-eyed expression.
We had a chuckle. How was this truth so obvious to Will, who was no exercise or anatomy enthusiast, but not me? How was I, the PT, just then appreciating how everything was connected? I’ve never forgotten that.
The spine runs head to tail in our bodies (OK, we don’t really have tails, but you get the idea). Our entire abdomen is affixed to it and hangs from it, as do our arms, legs, and our head. “Having no backbone”, or being “spineless” are appropriate expressions indeed. But on a biomechanical level, why is the health of the spine and it’s core muscles so important? Why is it so important to keep it flexible and strong?
The spine is connected to everything: nerves that go down the arms and legs emanate from it, big muscles in our body attach to it, and neuromuscular connections between the spine and our muscles are everywhere in our bodies. It’s really a beautiful system when you sit down and study it.
That last thing I mentioned, the neuromuscular connections, are important to understand. Our muscles are like idling car engines. There’s a small amount of muscle activity even at rest, and the “engine” really turns over when given a little extra encouragement from the gas pedal (our brain). In our bodies, this is called tone, a small baseline amount of muscle tension in the muscles even when we’re not doing anything. This tension is normal and healthy. The nerves from our brain consistently tell the muscles to fire at a very low level at rest to create this “normal tone”. The system gets dysfunctional when the nerve’s message to the muscle gets altered. Cerebral Palsy, a stroke, or Down Syndrome are just a few examples of this, where one’s muscles are too floppy (low tone) or too spastic (high tone) at rest. It’s a problem in signaling from the nerve to the muscle.
This signaling to muscles also gets altered when our joints get tight or inflamed, particularly in the spine. This means that when your spine is stiff, or not moving properly, distant muscles in your body are affected. The tone can either be too little (a weak muscle), or too high (a tight muscle). And it’s not the muscle’s fault! The muscle is still responding to the nerve’s signal, which itself has become abnormal.
But here’s the good news! If you can mobilize the spine and get it moving properly, those distant muscle problems very often resolve spontaneously. You have restored the normal neuromuscular signaling to your idling car, and without stretching or exerting, your flexibility and strength have improved!
Good manual therapy treatment anywhere in the body must start at the spine. If you are still stretching that tight pec muscle for your shoulder, or exercising that weak glute muscle for your knee, and you still aren’t getting anywhere, ask your therapist to recheck your spine. Without addressing this first, these dysfunctional muscles can persist indefinitely. See how we treat the spine in the cervical, upper thoracic, lower thoracic, lumbar, and sacroiliac regions here.
There are many benefits from Craniosacral Therapy (CST), which is a gentle, non-invasive form of Osteopathic Manual Therapy that I use every day in my practice. It’s great for people who find conventional approaches (such as medications, exercises or...