As we begin our year here at Sacred Bonsai Healing Arts, we are gearing up to be better to our bodies in every way. But the interconnectedness of the body can be a frustrating web to unravel. It often is easier to simply treat pain than find the root cause and bring the body back into balance. However, when we do that, are we truly healing?
In an effort to shed light on the mysteries of the body, we are highlighting one body system each month this year. Although this still may not scratch the surface on the complexity of the incredible machine that is human body, hopefully we can work to uncover some of the intricacies that make the body such a special place to live. We will delve into ways to keep your body systems functioning optimally and enjoy overall health! So what better system to start the year off with than the one that we as bodyworkers work with daily... the musculoskeletal system.
Your musculoskeletal system is what I like to think of as a framework for the whole body. It is actually two systems in one- the skeletal system and the muscular system. It consists of your skeleton, muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and fascia. While it seems like a lot of moving parts (pun definitely intended), these features work and fit seamlessly together to keep you moving.
The Skeletal System
Your skeleton is the scaffolding for the body. Although we are born with over 300 bones, some fuse together when we are young, and by adulthood we are left with 206 bones. Bones are formed from dense, fibrous connective tissue. As a fetus develops, this connective tissue becomes dense and hardens, becoming the skeleton. While we are all aware that the skeleton provides structure and form for you, it also has a few lesser recognized purposes.
Bones protect your vital organs. Think of how the skull perfectly protects the brain, and how the rib cage wraps around the heart and lungs. This perfect design not only acts as armor, but it also provides a strong frame for muscles and fascia to connect. These then further protect your body by holding all your organs in place.
Your bones are SO STRONG! They are built to hold your weight and support you in daily movement. Some bones can withstand and absorb the force of 2-3x your body weight!
Bones act as storage within the body. Minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, collagen, and magnesium are stored within your skeleton. Larger bones, such as the femur, also store what is known as "yellow marrow". This marrow stores extra fat, which the body can use as an energy reserve if needed. How amazing is that?!
Red marrow, which is more well-known is where many of your body's cells are created. Red and white blood cells are formed here, as well as platelets. The red marrow is also where bone cells are formed. Each has a specific role, and they do everything from monitor your bone health and mineral content, to rebuild and repair your bones, and even absorb old bone tissue to be reused to create new bone!
We all have both compact bone, which is very dense, and cancellous bone, which is spongy with honey-combed, marrow-filled spaces. Cancellous bone is found in the ends of long bones and the center of all other bones. Your body has different sizes and shapes of bones- all perfectly developed to hold, protect, move, and carry our bodies through the day-to-day. However, to do this they need constant help from your muscular system.
The most typical injuries to the skeletal system are: broken bones/fractures, dislocations, misalignments, postural disorders such as scoliosis, and other conditions which cause pain or inflammation.
The Muscular System
If your skeletal system is scaffolding, the muscular system would be pulleys and levers- helping your body get the job of moving done. You have over 600 muscles in your body, each with a specific action.
There are three types of muscle fibers in the body: smooth muscle, striated muscle, and cardiac muscle. Smooth muscles do not need conscious thought to move and contract. They are found in the internal organs, GI tract, and respiratory pathways. Striated muscle is what we usually think of when we think of our muscles. These are our innervated (voluntary) skeletal muscles, which help us move. These muscles have fibers grouped into bundles surrounded by connective tissue. They are strong muscles, and help us push, pull, and everything in between. Finally, cardiac muscles form a continuous network of fibers with interwoven cross-type fibers called Purkinje fibers. These specialized fibers create the impulse-conducting system of the heart.
Like bones, muscles come in many shapes and sizes. Some are stronger than others. Muscles such as your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps are among the biggest
and strongest muscles in the body. They support the bulk of your weight in most upright activities. When these big muscles become weak, they can cause poor posture and strain elsewhere in the body (such as the lower back).
Your muscles receive impulses from the nervous system which direct them to contract. This creates a push or pull on the connected bone, and pivots at the joint. In this simple way, we achieve every motion that we've ever made. From typing this blog post, to running a marathon. Likewise, involuntary (smooth) muscles move our food along in digestion and elimination, and keep us breathing.
Muscles do more than just help us move, though. They also help to support our bones and hold them in place. You may know this as a little term called posture. Without muscles, tendons, and ligaments, our bones would fall to a pile on the floor.
And did you know that muscles also act as storage for toxins in the body? Lactic acid and metabolic waste from your body get stored in muscle tissue over time. Without proper exercise, movement, or manual therapies such as massage, these products can cause aches and pains. That is why you always hear your therapist say "drink water after your session!" It helps flush out toxins that your muscles had stored away to protect your other cells.
Muscles also help to generate body heat. When a muscle is contracted and moves, heat is released as an energetic by-product. It is seldom thought-about, but very apparent. When you move around more, you are warmer. This is an important contribution on the part of our skeletal muscles. Likewise, movement helps to keep our blood and lymph properly circulating in our bodies. This is why exercise is so important- a moving body is a healthy body. And without muscles, nothing would move at all.
The most common maladies of the muscular system are: general pain, sprains, strains, pulls, cramps, muscle tears (including micro tears), and overuse injuries.
Joints, Tendons, and Ligaments
Joints are a beautiful companionship of muscle and bone. This is where all the magic happens- movement. They are the pivot points for all motion the body puts forth. There are 360 joints in the human body. At each of these articulation points, bones come together, held in place by muscles and attached by tendons or ligaments. Tendons are strong, tough, dense connective tissue that connect muscles to bone while ligaments connect bone to bone. Tendons can stretch, but ligaments cannot. Tendons also receive better blood flow than ligaments since they are connected to muscle. For these reasons, ligament injuries often seem to be worse than tendon injuries.
Some common problems that people have are: joint pain, arthritis, inflammation, bursitis, tendonitis, tendon or ligament tears or sprains, and stiffness.
(The ligaments vs. tendons of the knee)
Fascia (Connective Tissue)
Fascia is the connective tissue that runs throughout the body and holds everything together and in its place. I could write an entire post just on fascia. It is so important to everything I do as a bodywork therapist. Every muscle and every muscle fiber is encased in and connected by fascia. Every blood vessel, organ, bone, and nerve is surrounded by fascia. And all of this fascia- throughout the entire body- is connected! Fascia restrictions in the jaw or shoulder can cause pain, tension, and misalignment in the hips. Fascia restriction at the clavicle causes pulling and pain at the base of the skull. It is crucial to understand how our fascial network works.
Fascia is classified as either superficial, deep, or visceral, depending on where it is found in the body. Superficial fascia is a sheet of connective tissue that lies just under the skin. When it becomes restricted or "sticky", it can cause cellulite. Deep fascia covers muscles and muscle fibers, connecting different antagonist muscle groups throughout the body. Visceral fascia covers the organs.
Healthy fascia is naturally slick and supple. It can move and stretch easily. When our connective tissue becomes dehydrated or stagnant (through lack of movement) is becomes "sticky" or "fuzzy". It is no longer smooth and cannot glide over other layers of fascia and tissue. This causes restriction in our movements and loss of flexibility which then causes pain patterns in the body. Connective tissue is also said to have a stored somatic "memory". If you had been in a car accident or even suffered psychological or emotional trauma, your body may have adapted to holding those emotions and injuries physically. These would be stored in the fascia. This can also contribute to life-long physical pain patterns.
How Can Our Bodywork Help Your Musculoskeletal System?
Well, it may seem obvious that massage and bodywork would help ease a myriad of the ailments listed above. Regular massage sessions can help release muscle tension and fascial restriction. Massage can help ease postural stress on the skeletal system and even helps with small misalignments. It can help flush out toxins and other harmful waste from your muscles. Sports or Thai massage, which involve a lot of stretching, can help with fascia restriction and muscle tension, while helping improve flexibility.
Cupping and gua sha (scraping) can help smooth out layers of fascia, as well as break up scar tissues and adhesions, improve blood flow and oxygen saturation in the soft tissue, and release tension.
We also offer K-Taping, or muscle taping. This therapy not only provides added support to areas of weakened or injured muscles and joints, but also provides a small lifting action to the skin which increases circulation to the tissues. It also helps draw attention when we're implementing poor posture, making it easier to bring ourselves back into proper form.
Our bodies are truly wonderful and awe-inspiring machines. I enjoy the continual learning process that being a bodyworker provides. There is truly a universe inside each of us. I look forward to exploring that universe over the next year with each of you.