The Anatomy of Joint Pain

By: Dr. Darin Stokke, DC Lifestyles Healthcare Group

Joint pain is one of the most common symptoms people experience. Remedies and treatments are as varied as the sources that promote them. Most of the common treatments only address the symptoms of pain without addressing the actual cause of the joint pain. We are conditioned to believe that all pain is something to be avoided at all costs rather than something to be valued. As a result, we look to control the pain by ingesting prescription pain killers so that we can continue our normal activities without disruptions rather than take the time to correct the issue altogether.

Joints are connections between bones in the body that link the entire skeletal system into a functional whole and are constructed to allow for different types and degrees of movement to occur. Some joints such as the knee, elbow, and shoulder, are self-lubricating, almost frictionless, and are able to withstand compression and maintain heavy loads while still executing smooth and precise movements. Other joints are constructed to permit only very limited movement. When a disruption in the connection of the joint occurs due to trauma, bad posture or repetitive dysfunctional stresses, the tissues connecting the joint such as muscles and ligaments as well as the bones and cartilage can become injured. If a joint is injured, the body automatically shifts our weight or distributes stresses to other joints to protect the injured joint from further trauma. Pain is an important part of that protective feedback system that indicates that something is wrong. Without pain signals we risk the possibility of causing permanent damage to the unstable injured joint. Repetitive muscle and ligament injuries eventually leads to adhesions or scar tissue formation which further restricts motion and causes more pain. This injury cycle continues with each new injury until the body can no longer adapt or compensate properly.

When we stand or move our muscles absorb most of the shock of weight bearing. After an injury to a joint, the body compensates by inhibiting supporting muscles to cause a sort of splinting to occur to restrict movement. This inhibition of muscle activity is necessary and helpful in the short term. However, when muscles become inhibited, they lose the important shock absorbing quality. When enough muscles in a given area are inhibited, connective tissues, such as ligaments, bursa, adipose tissue and cartilage are forced to take on a larger supportive role. This in turn causes joint inflammation which is a necessary attempt to promote healing and aid in cushioning and protecting the joint. Eventually this process of stabilizing an injured unstable and dysfunction joint causes a break down to occur in the tissues including arthritic changes, degeneration and bony spur formation. All of this also causes chronic pain to occur in the joint.

To remain pain-free and to maintain joint health three things are necessary. First, the joint structure needs to be maintained with sufficient cartilage and joint capsule tissues. Second, the joint needs to be aligned so it can move smoothly through a full range of motion. Finally, joints are made for movement so strength of the joint stabilizing muscles are necessary for healthy movement to occur and for nutrients to be brought into the joint structure. Whether an acute injury or a chronic condition of any joint, all three areas must be addressed for optimal joint healing to occur, to prevent further damage of the joint, and to decrease the chances of re-injuring the joint. Treatment must start by addressing the health of the joint to determine if regenerative medicine therapy may be necessary to re-build joint tissues. Next, joint alignment must be addressed to ensure the joint is aligned in a biomechanically sound way to move functionally. The final step is to determine which muscles are involved by performing a full body functional movement screen so that a proper rehabilitation program can be prescribed to re-train the muscles and full-body movement patterns. Without re-training the muscles, the body will not hold the re-aligned joint and will continue to cause a problem that will keep coming back. If the same problem keeps coming back year after year, something in the treatment is most likely not working. Problems don’t need to keep coming back if addressed properly.

As always, make the choice today to correct the problem rather than simply covering up the symptoms and get back to enjoying life again!

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