What Are Joint Restrictions, Misalignments, Subluxations, and What Causes Them?
A joint is the functional moving unit made up of two or more neighboring bones. There are two types of joints in your body: spinal joints (made up of 2 neighboring vertebrae) and extremity joints (wrist, ankle, knee, hip, elbow, shoulder, jaw, etc). Just like your knee joint is made up of its neighboring bones (the tibia and fibula moving with the femur), spinal joints are also made up of neighboring bones (your vertebrae moving in relation to each other). The spinal bones are grouped into three regions: neck, or “cervical”, middle back or “thoracic, and low back or “lumbar”. The spinal regions are abbreviated “C” for cervical, “T” for thoracic, and “L” for lumbar. They are then numbered from top to bottom: C1-C7, T1-T12, and L1-L5. So, the L4-L5 spinal joint is made up of the 4th lumbar vertebra moving relative to the 5th lumbar vertebra. The extremity or spinal joint “complex” includes not only the two or more neighboring bones, but also the other structures nearby that affect that joint’s function. These structures include the nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, other soft tissues like fascia, and also the intervertebral discs in the case of spinal joints.
When a joint anywhere in the body (spinal or extremity) becomes misaligned (out of its normal position) or restricted (“tight” “locked up”, or loses its normal motion) then the entire joint complex and all of its related structures become affected. Sometimes referred to as subluxations, these joint misalignments and restrictions have both biomechanical and neurologic effects, which are often the underlying cause of a wide range of health problems.
Biomechanical Effects of Joint Misalignments, Restrictions, Subluxations:
When spinal or extremity joints become restricted or misaligned, tension and inflammation are created in the body. This can lead to biomechanical problems including pain, tension, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Furthermore, when one joint is restricted or “hypomobile”, the neighboring joints above and below it tend to move excessively to compensate and become “hypermobile” and unstable. This excessive motion and instability can cause more pain and excessive wear & tear on those hypermobile joints. Over time, the excessive wear & tear can lead to accelerated degeneration of the joint and ultimately osteoarthritis.
Neurologic Effects of Joint Misalignments, Restrictions, Subluxations:
Because nerves are a crucial part of the joint complex, the tension, inflammation and biomechanical problems described above may also create nerve irritation and/or nerve compression (pressure on the nerve, as in a “pinched nerve”). Nerve compression tends to cause numbness, weakness, tingling, and “pins & needles” sensations. Nerve irritation can also cause these symptoms, but most commonly causes pain. Nerve irritation and compression caused by joint misalignments and restrictions trigger altered signals including pain signals to bombard the central nervous system or “CNS”. The CNS (made up of brain, spinal cord, and spinal nerves) is a highly sensitive “stimulus-response” system, and tends to react rather dramatically to this nerve irritation or compression stimulus in a wide variety of ways:
- Tight Muscles
Certain muscles tend to tighten up, develop trigger points, or become “overactive” as a reaction to pain signals. This increased muscle tension further reinforces the misalignment and restriction of the affected joint. This triggers a “snowball effect” of muscle and joint tension causing nerve irritation and pain, causing more tension, more pain, etc.
- Weak Muscles
Other muscles become weak, inhibited, or “underactive”. This combination of underactive and overactive muscles (described above) leads to muscular imbalance and joint instability, which leads to more pain, poor posture, impaired athletic performance, and makes one more prone to injuries including repetitive and/or traumatic sprains, strains, muscle pulls, etc.
- Referred Pain
All the nerves in your body originate from the CNS, and extend outwards all the way to the tips of your fingers and toes. So, an irritated L4-L5 nerve can cause referred pain to travel along the course of the sciatic nerve: from the lower back, down through the hip, the leg, and all the way to the foot. Commonly referred to as “sciatica”, this condition is a type of referred pain syndrome, which originates at the level of the spinal joint complex. This type of referred pain can mimic or contribute to symptoms of lumbar disc bulge/herniation (“slipped disc”), tiliotibal band (ITB) syndrome, or plantar fasciitis. Similarly, cervical spine joint restrictions can cause referred pain extending from the neck and travelling down through the shoulder, arm, forearm, wrist and hand. This type of referred pain can mimic or contribute to symptoms of cervical disc bulge/herniation (“slipped disc”),carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, or rotator cuff syndrome.
- Other Problems:
Every tissue, organ, and cell in your body is under the control of your central nervous system, or “CNS”. Because pain signals traveling along irritated nerves directly affects the CNS, the pain signals caused by a joint misalignment can have far reaching effects throughout the body. For example, your lungs and digestive organs are controlled in part by the spinal nerves in the thoracic region of your spine. If these nerves are irritated by joint restrictions or misalignments in this part of your body, your lung function may become affected which can mimic or contribute to symptoms of asthma, reflux disease, or stomach ulcer. Similarly, joint dysfunction in the cervical spine can mimic or contribute to symptoms of headache, ear infection, vertigo, allergies, or sinusitis.
Many factors of modern living can cause your joints and muscles to become tense, restricted, and misaligned. Some common causes include any type of old or recent injury including: sports injuries, car accidents, whiplash syndrome, ankle sprains, and falls. Other causes include: stress, poor posture, repetitive motions, prolonged sitting & standing without breaks, poor sleep habits, improper lifting, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and poor form during exercise and at the gym.
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