And how it affects performance, pain and more
A tactician moving his forces
It is said by some historians that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo in 1815 because he was suffering from hemorrhoids. This made him unable to sit upon his horse and look out on the battlefield and direct his forces appropriately based on his opponent’s movements. Not being able to see and orientate himself led to an inability for him to respond and plan out his own movements, and in the end, this led to his downfall.
This is also a great metaphor for how our brain and our bodies work with each other, helping us understand how we move with such precision and helping us understand how injury and pain may present itself. Let us take a closer look.
The complexity of human movement
Have you ever thought about the complexity of the movements involved in drinking from a glass of water standing in front of you? How do we know exactly how to move to pick it up and drink from it, all while not spilling a single drop of water? Or even much more advanced, how are those in sports able to kick a ball 60 meters with high precision, while a teammate is able to receive it on his or her foot with a silky touch stopping it’s momentum until he or she kicks it on further scoring a goal. By my thoughts, some of these athletes are pure artists and geniuses in how their brains are able to interpret and understand their own position, compared to the movements of their opponents as well as the movement of the ball simultaneously in time and space, leading to an amazing ability of their brains to choose the movements which complements their desired goal with such grace and elegance.
Understanding our own position in time and space
All of the movements mentioned in the previous example requires that our brain is able to comprehend and interpret our position, before movement can be made. So, before we can move, the brain has to understand where our body is compared to its surroundings. Like Napoleon, we need to be able to orientate from our position before we can move. So, the first question would be, how does the brain understand our position?
Think of the brain as living in a dark room, where it sits in darkness and still it needs to decide how things are done. So fortunately, it has developed an ability to orientate itself, and it is mainly done by three sensory systems. One, and maybe the most obvious is vision, the eyes tell us about what is happening in the world around us. The second one is by our vestibular system, which is a structure in the inner ear which keeps track of our heads position, and it’s very pre-occupied with keeping it in an upright position. And finally, our sense of proprioception, which is our ability to both sense our body as well as being aware of our bodily position. This happens through many structures, such as muscles, tendons, joints, connective tissue and even our skin. All these structures feed the brain with information about what is going on, and which position that part of the body is in, at any period of time.
This information is then processed by two structures in the brain, the vestibular nuclear complex, and the cerebellum which is also called the little brain. With this information they try to make sense of the world around it. The cerebellum helps to calibrate and adjust whenever there is faulty positioning. In our way of treating and understanding pain and injuries, it is important to comprehend this complexity to see how certain treatment principles work in reducing pain, and lowering probability of injuries, as well as increasing performance.
How the sensory system affects our performance
So, the point being, our ability to maintain balance, and fluency of movement depends on the sensory systems ability to correctly perceive its own position. And this is something which may be damaged by injuries, overactivity and so on. We see this for example, when someone twists their ankle, they are no longer able to put weight on it in a normal way. But rather, they shift their weight so that the other foot is carrying more of the load of the body. This is how the brain in its great intelligence, finds another way to maintain your overall balance by activating other movement patterns, so that you are still able to move, but no longer, necessarily, in a symmetrical pattern. The greater this dysfunction is, the more limited your overall movement pattern will become, because the sensory system is no longer able to perceive the world as it is, due to altered sensory information being transmitted to the brain as the result of this injury.
How it affects injuries and performance
And in sports, we have also seen this example in numerous cases, where the player gets injured, and then even after healing. Their ability to maintain their highest level of play, with both physical ability such as ability to sprint at full speed, but also in complex movements patterns, and interpreting complex plays on the field, becomes compromised. And at the same time, the player also becomes prone to further injuries leading to a very frustrated athlete who is unable to comprehend what is going on.
The self correcting system
In these situations, the brain is actually trying to help correct what is going on by working with interpreting this information, and the brain may perceive the information of the current state of the body as being wrong and therefore making adjustments, leading to compensated movement patterns. But these movement patterns are still flawed, because once where there was a clear idea about where everything is, now there are some black spots in its field of vision. And when we cannot see something, it makes it more difficult for us to decide what to do – in other words, how we move is based on our brain’s ability to understand the body’s position. It must first know where everything is, before it makes the calculations into which muscles and movements patterns to use, to complete its goal. When this information about perception of your own body is wrong, the performance of how it recruits the right muscles for its goal directed behavior will also be poor leading to loss of performance, which in sports may translate to less force, or in daily life, into clumsiness in way of moving. Just like it became difficult for Napoleon to move his forces when he could not see the battlefield. This usually ends up with the brain defaulting to using compensated movement patterns to stabilize this asymmetrical position, which is a way to support the system, but in the end, these muscles and the way force is being transmitted onto the body may end with becoming so limited, that certain structures are overloaded which may lead to pain as well as injuries.
So, what is the solution to this problem? Well, the solution is to improve upon these faulty signaling. And what causes these faulty signaling is most commonly injuries. And maybe even most peculiar, is even the injuries we have experienced on an earlier stage, which are no longer painful or perceived to be problematic. And the reason why this is so, is exactly because of what we have previously explained. When the brain perceives a problem, it tries to avoid it, so that the structure which is injured may heal, an asymmetrical position occurs, but it is functional. The problem is, when this asymmetrical pattern is not reversed after the healing is complete, and the body continues in a faulty position.
Reintegrating lost or destabilized movement patterns, is an important step for the body to regain its ability to avoid pain and injuries as well as optimizing performance such as in top level sports activity.