By Grant Frost
Thanks to the internet, information sharing has never been easier. Our understanding of the human body has expanded exponentially with cutting-edge thinking that can be shared in real-time. We have a lot to be thankful for in the medical industry, and with this comes the ability to debunk myths that have, until recently, stood the test of time.
As an experienced physiotherapist, I am offering a fresh perspective to 10 well-known musculoskeletal myths and I will explain why it’s time to let them go.
#1 | You Must Have “Slept Funny”
If you’ve ever woken up with a sore neck or back without knowing why, it’s easy to feel like you’ve “slept funny.” Interestingly, this is less sleep-related and has everything to do with your shapes, postures, and positions from the day before. We often take these overloaded areas to sleep and wake with the consequences — a similar idea to next-day soreness from a new or heavy workout. Your best spinal shape is a straight one, so it’s important to get a sense of where you might need to improve. Pay attention to the less sexy, stationary moments like sitting on the couch, behind a desk, in the car, looking down at a phone or book, leaning over etc. Consider the positions you get into often and work back from there. They may not instantly stand out, but they are highly likely to be there.
#2 | Cracking Your Joints Is Bad For You
To crack a joint is to release built-up pressure. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, despite its negative connotations. The real issue is why the pressure has built up in the first place. If a joint is functioning normally and loaded correctly, then it won’t feel like cracking. For example, if you constantly need to crack your neck, consider what positions are causing this poor loading day-to-day. Are you looking down a lot? Do you slouch throughout the day or while sitting up in bed? It’s important to understand that cracking your joints is unlikely to be bad for you but, in the long-term, exposure to these poor shapes and positions could be.
#3 | Squatting Below Parallel Is Bad For Your Hips
This is another old-school ideal that has lingered. How often do you hear that it’s bad for your hips to squat below parallel? Interestingly, the opposite is true — provided you haven’t lost that mobility. Thanks to the modern Western lifestyle, we’re rarely asked to bend our hips beyond 90-degrees. This is in part due to our reliance on modern seating, so we lose what we don’t routinely use. Technically, we need to squat below parallelmore to help maintain normal hip health and function and combat a sedentary lifestyle. Do as our Eastern friends do, or your baby-self used to, and value the deep squat.
#4 | Growing Pains
‘Growing pains’ is a label given to a lot of the discomfort children experience while growing. This is another myth that makes perfect sense on some level but misses the bigger picture. The pain associated with growing has more to do with the child’s biomechanics than their growing status. In most cases, there will be something broader that sets those tissues up to fail. But the catch is that it may not stand out unless you look for it. Throughout childhood there are certainly vulnerable areas, such as the heel and the front of the knee, but if the child’s mechanics are good enough to meet the demands of their activities, they shouldn’t expect them to hurt. After all, growing is normal isn’t it?
#5 | You Need To Hold A Stretch
For years we’ve adhered to static stretching. We’ve held our stretches — generally for around 30 seconds — to allow our tight muscles time to give. While this myth isn’t technically incorrect, it’s not as effective as it’s made out to be. When trying to mobilize your tissues, practice a technique called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. Here you need to find a good stretch and then contract those tight muscles for a few seconds. This engages your nervous system and reflexively relaxes and restores normal function to the tissue. It’s a brilliant way to stretch as you should always expect to notice an immediate result if performed correctly.
#6 | It’s An “Age Thing”
This is another myth that’s far too popular, but also tricky as it certainly can feel true. A lot of us do become stiffer and sorer with age. However, the key here is that we are unlikely to become stiff and sore because we age. Instead, it’s highly likely that time has exposed underlying bad habits, postures, and/or biomechanics. It’s the legacy of how things function, not that they’ve been functioning for too long. It’s not that your knee has suddenly reached an age where it’s due to break down, but rather it’s more likely that your leg mechanics may not have been great for a while now and the older you’re getting the longer you’ve had for it to cause a problem. This isn’t to say that we can undo the ravages of time, but you often don’t have to feel, move, and function better — you just need the right perspective to find that missing piece of the puzzle.
#7 | Hamstring Tightness At The Back Of Your Knee
When stretching your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thigh), it’s common to feel tightness at the back of the knee. It’s often assumed that this is hamstring tightness, but you may be surprised to know that this sensation is actually an over-tensioned nerve — the sciatic nerve. A true hamstring stretch should most likely be felt up in the middle of your thigh. As it turns out, there isn’t much in the way of musculature in the back of the knee. Interestingly, the sciatic nerve passes right through here on its way down the leg. Be aware that neural tightness at the back of your knee can be linked with simple lower-back dysfunction, so keep this in mind if your goal is improve your overall hamstring flexibility.
#8 | Your Best Shoulder Posture Is Back And Down
How often do you hear that the best position for your shoulders is back and down? The idea here is that we need to pull our shoulders down to counteract tight neck and shoulder muscles. Actually, however, the opposite is true. In this case, it’s important to consider what comes first. If we slouch, gravity tends to draw our shoulders forward and down. This creates constant tension throughout the upper back, neck, and shoulder musculature, and asks them to adaptively tighten in response. To prevent the entire process from the beginning, we actually need to consistently pull our shoulders back and up to regain a neutral position.
#9 | Noisy Knees Are A Sign Of Arthritis
If your creaky knees have you worried about arthritis, you can probably rest easy. This isn’t to say you don’t have arthritis, it’s just that arthritis is unlikely to be the cause of your creakiness. Traditionally, we have thought that, because your joint may have worn down a little, it’s understandable to hear an orchestra of effects at the knee. Clinically, creaky knees are more a sign that your overall knee (and leg) mechanics aren’t perfect. Think tight thighs, glued down soft-tissue around the knee cap, stiff ankles, tight calves, hip tightness, etc. Essentially there’s a handbrake on somewhere and it’s letting you know. This is a nice one to debunk as treating your relevant “handbrakes” can see these sounds regress initially and stay away over time, irrespective of how arthritic your knee may be.
#10 | Your Back Is “Out”
We often use the term “out” to describe a sore back (or neck). We associate it with a feeling of being stuck, jammed, or blocked. Thankfully, however, this is unlikely to signify something physically out of place with the spine. The spine is a supremely robust and resilient mechanical structure — and it needs to be because it protects your spinal chord and acts as the centerpiece to which all musculoskeletal function is anchored. As a result, its individual segments are almost impossible to budge without disastrous long-term consequences. The sensation of being “out” is most closely associated with the joints of the spine. If you overload and mistreat these joints, the area can be forced to adaptively stiffen and tighten. This mechanism helps to support a poorly loaded spine, but it also sacrifices normal movement in the process. Essentially, that jamming “out” type of sensation is a mechanical one. And thankfully so because, if your spine were truly out of place or alignment, then you’d be faced with some long-term or permanent life-altering consequences, not an afternoon on the couch.
Grant Frost is an experienced Australian Physiotherapist currently living in sunny California. This wellness nerd is intensely passionate about understanding why injuries and dysfunction occur and how best to solve them. Grant hopes to bring his unique brand of helpful and insightful education to as many people as possible through Your Wellness Nerd (www.yourwellnessnerd.com; www.yourwellnessnerd.com/forum)