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Compensated movement patterns


Why do we compensate our movements after an injury?

Understanding compensated movement patterns


Every time you decide to move your body to perform a specific task such as walking, putting groceries into your shopping cart, or throwing a ball, then every movement you make requires effort from your muscles. How we use our bodies to complete these tasks may be very different varying from person to person. A good way to understand why our movement patterns may vary, is an example.



Say you are out running in the woods, and suddenly you twist your ankle, in this moment you stop moving because of the pain. And when you try to put weight on it so that you can start running again, you notice the pain is increasing making you unable to run anymore. But that is not all, it also shifts your ability to walk normally as well, because putting any weight on it in the way you normally do, is painful. So for you to be able to move at all, so that you can get home, you try shifting your weight over to the opposite foot, all the time trying to avoid putting weight on the painful foot as much as possible. You find a way of using the painful foot, but it is not in your normal way of moving. This is an example of a compensate movement pattern. And it is beautifully adjusted to your current needs. See, the body and the brain, always try to make a compromise as to what is the best way for you to move. And the way you move at any given time is what the brain deems as your optimal movement pattern based on your current condition. In the next few days, you start noticing a different pain in your body, suddenly you feel pain on the front of your hip as well as the front of the calf on your painful side, as well as pain on the outside of your opposite hip. Why is this? This was not injured, so why are you feeling this pain? The answer is, since your body shifted the way you moved that leg, you avoided the movement which causes you pain, by only keeping weight on your heel on your painful side by using your muscles in the front of your hip and calf to lock off these painful movements. As well as shifting the weight towards the outside of the opposite hip so that the other leg can bear more of the weight of the body than the painful side.


Accepting pain as part of the new movement pattern

These newly adjusted movements are what we call compensated movement patterns. They serve a function in that they protect you from doing more harm to the injured area. The challenge of course is that it imposes more strain on the normally healthy muscles, because these are needed to avoid the pain you are experiencing. And even though they also become painful, the brain perceives this as less of a threat than your currently injured ankle, and therefore accepts there is some pain in using these patterns, which usually subsides once the muscles adjust their tolerance levels by adapting to this increased activity.


The development of new injuries and dysfunction

Some of the problem though, is that in certain injuries that may occur, the normal movement is not restored. Which means, you keep moving in a compensated movement pattern even after this original injury might have healed. The brain is not willing to put proper load on the muscles which have been involved in the painful movement patterns. The pattern will be more refined, meaning not looking necessarily as limited as when you first injured your foot, but nonetheless it is changed. And the compensated movement patterns are still active. This leads to an asymmetrical movement of the body, which puts other muscles, joints, ligaments and tissues under stress. Which much later, might lead to other injuries, again shifting the need of the body to compensate for this occurrence as well. Restoring damaged, or reduced movement patterns is of high importance to avoid possible future injuries as well as optimizing the bodies ability to work in a most fluent and gracious pattern as possible. We also see that when people develop other injuries or pains later, these may not necessarily release by itself because the brain does not allow putting weight on the previously injured area so that the body remains in a limited and restricted pattern. Releasing and re-adapting these movements through exercise and therapy is an important step in many cases in order to avoid pain, new injuries and limitations of your body’s ability to move.