The brain has maps of your bones, joints, muscles, organs, visual, and balance systems. Like a personal GPS system, it tells you where you are and where you are going. There are: sensory maps, think difference between a pinch and a tickle; memory maps, which make it possible to recognize an old friend; movement maps, which allow us to walk without thinking of every muscle involved. These maps help our brains work more efficiently; conserving energy for activities like problem solving, or running from lions. The brain’s primary concern is your immediate survival, not how well you perform. To make this high demand job easier, it creates predictive models of the world based on sensory information. The information used to create the maps of your bones and joints comes from mechanoreceptors. A joint with a clear map moves in a full range of motion. This level of clarity frees the brain from threat and primes it for performance. If on the other hand, the mechanoreceptors are not sending signals when they should be, there is a blurry map, and the brain will send out the threat message. This signal can take the form of pain, slow movement, less range of motion, flexibility, or power. Injury is the most common map scrambler. Life happens; you trip off a curb and jam an ankle, or sleep funny and wake-up with kink in your shoulder. Because your brain’s concern is your immediate survival, it will modify your maps to work around the injured area. The modified maps will begin to affect every aspect of your life. The limp that started with a tweaked ankle may become a permanent quality to your walk. Repetitive movements under stress can also have negative consequences on brain maps. When the flight and fight (startle) response is continuously linked with any movement, the brain will reflexively link the two maps for efficiency. This process of rewiring neural pathways for efficiency is called neural plasticity. The more an action is performed, the more efficient the brain becomes at said action. If two different actions are consistently performed together, the brain will wire the two actions together. This is great for conserving energy, but if care is not taken, corrupt chunks can be created by repetitive actions executed with blurry maps. It takes 10,000 repetitions of an action to move from the cognitive to the autonomous regions of the brain. That means activities performed everyday have the potential to quickly hard-wire maps. If the activity involves more that one body part, it can rewire the maps of all body parts involved. That funky walk caused by a tweaked ankle will become hard-wired after 10,000 steps. That’s as few as 4 days, unless conscious action is taken to clarify the blurry maps.
Let’s continue with the tweaked ankle example. You limp around in pain for a couple of weeks, cursing the curb that assaulted you, popping Advil to dull the pain. Life goes on; public transportation to work, taking the dog out, grocery shopping and household chores. All activities that require walking and potentially carrying loads. That means shifting the weight to the non-injured side and hobbling along for a while. To make hobbling more efficient the brain alters its existing map for walking and turns it into hobbling. Not only is hobbling complicated, it potentially doubles the weight being carried by one leg. That might require some reinforcement to help handle the new load. Maybe the plantar fascia of the foot gets inflamed (plantar fasciatis), the fascia of the low back tightens up to help support the spine (back pain), or the shoulders get tight from the extra forces travelling through them, the possibilities are infinite. Because you didn’t know how to restore your maps, you never fully recovered and have a low-grade limp for years. You stopped tennis because it hurt you too much. The muscles on the injured leg begin to atrophy and the bones begin to de-mineralize. The non-injured side continues to handle more load and the forces at the knee are altered, potentially causing pain and osteoarthritis.[i] As life continues, the injuries add up: tweaked ankle first, car accident next year, low back pain for no apparent reason. Then the right shoulder starts to hurt after “sleeping funny.“ The maps continue to blur, and the forces transmitted through the body are less optimal as the years go on. You begin to wake up stiffer every morning and look forward to hanging out on the couch, instead of hiking with friends. From your brain’s perspective it’s safer and hence more enjoyable to stay at home. Blurry maps make the world a dangerous place.
Not all hope is lost after a string of injuries; the same laws that govern this process work in reverse. A map chunk that created a limp can be broken, releasing the stress on support tissues by returning walking to its natural ease. When visiting a new city you procure the most current maps to navigate the town; the same should be done with the body. Update your maps on a regular basis. A systematic approach is learning the ABC’s of movement as taught by Z-Health, and supplementing with strength training. The strength training will provide the brain the appropriate stimulus to hard-wire the clarified maps. As the years go on and you brain maps continue to improve, so to will your options for fun. Enjoy life and exercise your brain and body!
I. Z-Health R-Phase Power Point, Slide 67.
II. Gait Mechanics Influence Healthy Cartilage Morphology and Osteoarthritis of the Knee J Bone Joint Surg Am. Feb 1, 2009; 91(Supple 1): 95-101 Thomas P. Andriacchi, PhD, Seungbum Koo, PhD, and Sean F. Scanlan, MS
III. Dynamic Biomechanics of the Normal Foot and Ankle During Walking and Running
IV. PHYS THER. 1988; 68:1822-1830. Mary M Rodgers
V. Sandra Blakeslee and Mathew Blakeslee, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007), 3-89.