What happens when my Muscles are manipulated?
In order to understand what happens when our muscles are manipulated (ie massaged, or worked with any number of other ‘soft tissue' techniques) and why this treatment can have such a powerful effect, we really need to understand how our muscles work, then how they go wrong.
Here we go…
In response to neural (nerve) stimulation from the brain (conscious action) or from the spine (reflex action), muscle fibres react by contracting or relaxing. So we either conciously tell our muscles what to do, such as bend our arm, or they do it on their own, such as holding our head up.
Muscles have a consistent degree of ‘tone’ that is maintained by a normally functioning body. Tone is a degree of contraction that is healthy and enables us to maintain posture.
The body will maintain this degree of tone throughout your life and one could describe it as part of the homeostatic (self regulating) mechanisms that keep all body functions within certain parameters, i.e. levels of acidity, temperature etc.
When the body deviates from these narrow parameters, feedback mechanisms exist to inform the body of the imbalance, it (the body) then takes measures to address the situation, so, if it gets too hot, it will sweat so that evaporation reduces temperature. This is a homeostatic mechanism.
The body has an internal blueprint of what is normal and natural for its perfect function and health. This is vital knowledge because its what we therapists depend on when treating someone with the aim of healing.
Let’s examine how this works in practice
Firstly, we know there is a ‘normal’ tone, which the body recognises. Secondly, we have to remember that the body is by evolutionary necessity, an ‘adaptive’ mechanism, i.e. if any change is required in the body’s normal physiology due to external stimulus, it will do its best to adapt. An example of this is the, way muscle tissue grows if you keep subjecting it to resistance stress. (Bodybuilding)
An example more pertinent to our understanding requires examination of the cervical (neck) muscles.
The cervical muscles are designed to move our head, which, weighing 9-12 pounds, should be balanced on top of our spine. However, if one sits in front of a computer all day and ‘pokes’ the head forward, the muscles at the back of the neck have to hold nearly the full weight of the head!
At first the body sends you constant messages saying that this is not an optimal position for healthy function. You receive these mesages as neck or headaches, of course you ignore them and so gradually your body ‘adapts’. This means that more fibres are recruited for constant use in the posterior (at the back of your neck) cervical muscles and gradually, the feedback mechanisms sent from your muscle to your brain with information regarding its distress, are overridden.
Eventually a new ‘normal’ is arrived at, your body has adapted! The tone in your posterior neck muscles has increased to allow for the constant stress put upon them, and the feedback mechanisms will not alert your brain until you put even MORE stress upon them, whereby the body will first inform you of its distress, then adapt again.
The human machine is a miracle of bio-technology. This adaptive process can go on indefinitely while being almost imperceptible.
However, there are always consequences to adaptation. The laws of natural therapy tell us: for every adaptation there is an accompanying loss of function.
In the case of muscle contraction, imagine the tension created, as a tourniquet wrapped fairly tightly around your limb and then being left there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year (remember – the feedback mechanisms have been altered, so the body is not getting any stimulation to change the tourniquet situation)!
So, firstly, the muscle is overworking; a muscle fibre is simply a specialised cell, it takes in nutrients, uses them to fuel work, then produces waste products of activity, in the same way we eat, work and then eliminate waste.
The muscles' ‘food’ supply comes from nutrients and oxygen supplied by the blood through microscopic capillaries, the waste products are expelled from the muscle cell and picked up by other vessels and circulated out of the muscle tissue to be cleaned or eliminated by the body’s various systems.
Interestingly, the contraction and relaxation of muscles themselves acts as a sort of ‘pump’ to aid in removal of these ‘toxic’ wastes.
The tourniquet analogy comes in because, quite simply, the muscles are consistently over contracted. This means that blood can no longer easily deliver nutrients and oxygen into the tightly compacted muscle. It also means that neither can tissue fluid flow through the muscle fibres so effectively. On top of this, the muscle is no longer acting effectively as a ‘pump’. There is a slowing of received nutrients and slowing down in the removal of toxic waste products.
Consequently waste builds up, which irritates the muscle fibres causing them to contract further (as muscles are wont to do when traumatised). And the whole process continues. Only now there is another factor to consider – parts of the muscle may now be so irritated that an inflammatory response occurs, usually on a very low level, but enough that white blood cells and plasma proteins are released into the muscle in the form of inflammatory exudates (this is exactly what happens on a larger scale when you twist your ankle and it swells up).
Because there is a reduced movement of fluid through the muscle, this exudate tends to sit between the fibres and with time becomes viscose or sticky, then glue like, creating adhesions between the muscle fibres, even further reducing their ability to function.
The net result of this activity is an increasingly over contracted muscle that is very sensitive to sometimes even the lightest pressure.
The effect of this upon the function of this muscle is variable. At a certain point, sometimes not until the muscle is nearly 2 thirds tighter than it should be, it will react by going into an uncontrolled spasm or cramp. Prior to this another protective mechanism may kick in:- This is a ‘switching off’ in response to a stimulus that the Central nervous system (CNS) perceives to be beyond the muscles ability to deal with.
So, quite simply, pressing your fingers into a muscle, with focussed intent, will begin to reverse the spiral of decline that has occurred in the muscle (Described above). In response to the stimulus of massage techniques the body will respond in a number of ways:
1. Blood flow will increase, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the muscle.
2. The combination of pressure and increased blood flow will help to improve fluid movement and push out waste products or toxins that have been irritating the muscle fibres, reducing their sensitivity to pressure, sometimes within minutes.
3. The neural feedback mechanism from the muscle to the brain will now be highly stimulated, and due to the homeostatic nature of the body these feedback mechanisms will encourage the muscle tension back towards ‘normal’. Indeed, stimulus will create this effect in response to pressure whether the muscle is too tight or lacking tone! Remember - the blueprint of normal is contained in the body’s innate memory!