Many years ago I had a friend in the Nursing school at St. Scholastica. I remember going up to visit her and going to her cadaver lab. Horrible smells aside, I thought it was interesting to see what lies beneath our skin. Sure, in high school, we did our share of dissections in biology, but I don't remember ever looking at the muscular anatomy until visiting my friend.
I grew up in a city with a family — like many, if not most urban families — disconnected from our food and our bodies. It is uncomfortable to think about and admit that sometimes I still buy chemical-laden meat from animals that grew up in a warehouse far away, eating genetically modified (and perhaps rancid) grain. At the right time, it's processed and wrapped in foam and plastic which ultimately ends up in the landfill, and is trucked here. But don’t get me started on petroleum consumption. In the end, we know our food is good and safe, because it bears the USDA Inspected sticker. Right? Comforted, we consume.
But forgive my tangent. I'm writing about anatomy. Like most people around me it was, and still sometimes is, hard to imagine what the package means when it’s labeled "shoulder" or "neck roast." The thing in the package certainly doesn't look like my shoulder. Or does it?
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to help cut up some venison. I recalled my trip to the cadaver lab, but this somehow seemed more real. No preservatives had been added. After the skin was removed there was a layer of "insulation" and then the connective tissue and fascia that surrounds the muscles. My friend started to cut. I found the shoulder and could feel the familiar bony landmarks under the meat. I grabbed the portion just above the spine of the scapula and asked, "Do you think this is supraspinatus or upper trapezius?" It was hard to differentiate.
I palpated for trigger points and tried to see areas of thickened fascia. While I cut, I wondered about muscle pain in wild animals. Do they, too, ever have poor posture? Do they, too, get overuse injuries? I wondered if any scientist or naturalist has observed a behavior that would suggest the deer is rubbing his or her sore muscles. This deer was pretty young. I'll bet a bigger, older buck would have much thicker fascia and tighter shoulders.
I wanted to dissect the entire animal muscle by muscle, but pressures like time and needing to get the deer in the freezer prevented me from doing so. Once I finally did get all the meat off, I was struck by the scapula and how the deer shoulder blade is so similar to ours-- triangular in shape, with a vertebral border, a spine, a superior and inferior angle. The shoulder joint and the hip joint are similar too.
By this time, we were all starting to feel the muscle strain in our own backs and shoulders from skinning, cutting, grinding and wrapping all day. If I were the scientist or naturalist, I would have observed our stretching and shoulder rolling behavior and wondered about our pain too. My friend held up the back strap for us to inspect. We all agreed that our own back straps were tired and could use some attention. If we had four legs instead of two, our back straps wouldn't feel so weak from trying to hold us up. I wrapped it up and stuck my own label on it, thankful to be filling our freezer with local, organic, free range venison.
Back in Cincinnati I had a mentor who, when speaking about pain relief, often spoke of balanced alignment. I know, it sounds like we’re talking about wheels and it’s easy to visualize the uneven wear and tear on the tires, but roll with me for a minute. Let’s look at the role that balanced alignment, or posture, plays in pain and pain relief.
Ever since we were children, our parents have told us to stand or sit up straight. I can hear my mom’s voice in my mind’s ear reminding me not to slouch. That’s a great tip to take seriously, but it doesn’t stop there. You see, muscles (which cross joints and allow us to move) all have an optimal resting length. When our muscles are in neutral/balanced alignment, meaning at their optimal resting length, we usually have a pain-free lifestyle, a “normal” range-of-motion and normal grip strength. Yep. When our muscles are at their optimal resting length, we usually have a pain-free lifestyle, normal range-of-motion, and normal grip strength.
Let’s look at the chronic shoulder tension of the computer muscles as they’re so often called. Many times people grasp one side of the shoulder, sometimes saying something like “It’s always on my right.” Or what have you. A person with a trained eye can make all sorts of observations and assessments. In this case, if the client were to stand in front of a posture grid, a professional might be able to observe (objectively) a shoulder height discrepancy, or a forward head, or as my mentor used to say “When one side of the pelvis shifts, the shoulder often follows.” It was in this way that we were trained to look at the musculo-skeletal system as a whole and dynamic system instead of just isolated muscles that simply perform a single job.
Professional bodyworkers may be trained to make assessments which measure range-of-motion. Additionally, the use of a posture grid will allow a therapist to see discrepancies and torsion in his or her clients. A person simply stands in front of the grid and the therapist takes a picture and/or marks position on the grid. You and your bodyworker will be able to clearly see if you have any shoulder or hip height discrepancies or rotational considerations. As we all know, muscles attach to bones and therefore can cause misalignments and imbalances at joints (where two bones come together) if the muscles are too tight. Assessments help the therapist determine which muscle groups need attention and what kind of modality would be most effective to make more space for the muscle fibers to glide and communicate as well as restore them to a more optimal resting length for pain relief and improved range of motion.
Overuse, sports injuries, poor ergonomics and an inability to resist gravity are a few reasons for changes in muscle length and the fascial fibers that surround everything inside of us. Therapeutic massage combined with corrective exercise can be a great non-invasive treatment option to restore your muscles and fascia to a more normal resting length. Or, as my mentor would have said, get closer to balanced alignment.
It was a moonlit and snowy night high on the Bayfield Peninsula. The wind was blowing the snow into dunes and my shoulders and core were all warmed up from their shoveling workout and I was looking forward to a break when the phone rang. It was a colleague returning a call to talk shop. We like to share stories and anecdotes about things we’ve been working on.
She said she had a new idea for teaching people how to do soft-tissue work on their own muscles and fascia. She was teaching people massage. I was curious.
“What do you mean,” I asked her.
She told me that she gives her participants a bit of hard beeswax at the beginning of her class. The hard beeswax is a bit like our muscles when they’re not getting proper fluid and circulation. If we immediately try to push on or pull the beeswax it resists pressure. You have probably tried it with clay and had it SNAP from being pulled too fast. But if we move slowly and give it gentle pressure, warming it up in our hands first, it becomes softer and more pliable. Soft-tissue is much the same way. To avoid pain and bruising, we try not to work too deeply until the muscles and fascia have been warmed up.
I thought the beeswax was a great analogy and wonderful teaching tool. What a gift. My mind’s eye could see it getting softer as it warmed up and relaxing just like one’s tight muscles do when they are feeling the effect of improved circulation during a massage. I thought about how long of a worm one can roll, or how thin a pancake one can make when the beeswax is completely relaxed. The massage made the beeswax less stiff. As my muscles were cooling off, the impact of my snow shoveling was starting to be felt in my stiffening shoulder muscles and I made a mental note to schedule a massage as soon as possible.
Of course, we all know that our muscles have an optimal resting length which allows us sufficient strength and efficient movement with which to perform our daily activities without weakness or pain. Being a results-oriented gal, if the pain isn’t just general muscle soreness, I like to find out what muscles or muscle groups are too tight or not tracking correctly and work on restoring the muscles to a more normal resting length. My snow shoveling pain was that of a good workout, not necessarily a bad thing.
I started rubbing my ever-stiffening traps, deltoids and biceps. I was going to circulate my delayed onset muscle soreness right outta there. I started to work a little deeper when my muscles warmed up. Lifting, twisting, sifting and separating the muscle fibers like one might card wool.
I got into my low back, finding the trigger points near each the lumbar vertebrae and digging in. “Fresh blood and oxygen to the tissues,” became like a mantra. But I was still on the phone so I didn’t say it out loud. My colleague and I agreed to pick up our conversation in a month. I wished her a fabulous year and went to look for some beeswax to have for my next workshop.
Click he Four actions of the lower leg
I’ve been working on a lot of legs lately, and it’s no wonder why with all of the outdoor-oriented careers and endurance activities that we Chequamegonites participate in. When we are running, hunting, or checking out a timber stand, our muscles are contracting and relaxing thousands of times and we usually don’t notice it until something is amiss. Walking and running over sometimes quite rugged terrain requires special muscular strength and endurance as well as balance and coordination. I thought it would be timely to write about the unconscious actions we perform to maintain our footing while doing what we love to do.
Have you ever heard anyone talk about pronation? Sometimes runners talk about pronating or overpronating, and what they mean is that when they walk or run their ankles roll in. On the outside of the lower leg from the tibia/fibula to the outside of the foot is a group of three muscles, called peroneals, and when contracted they turn the sole of the foot toward the outside which makes the medial ankle roll inward. Sometimes we call this lower leg motion “eversion” meaning that the sole of the foot is everted (turning toward the outside) of the body.
Inversion is an action in which the bottom of the foot turns inward. This action is performed primarily by two muscles in the lower leg, the tibialis anterior and the tibialis posterior. The tibialis posterior tendon ru+ns behind the inner (medial) ankle bone through a tunnel then inserts onto a couple of foot and toe bones so that when it contracts, the sole of the foot turns inward. The tibialis anterior has a similar route and action. Inversion and eversion together are necessary so we can move with agility and safety.
Dorsiflexion is performed when the tibialis anterior and the long extensor muscles of the toes contract making the space between the toes and the knee smaller. When you are running, during the strike phase of your gait, your lower leg comes over your foot into dorsiflexion. If your calf muscles are too short, you won’t be able to get this range-of-motion and it could cause too much load on other structures leading to pain and injury.
When your toes are pointed toward the ground, or you are standing on your tip-toes, or doing standing calf-raises, your muscles are performing plantar flexion. The calf muscles gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris merge together to form the calcaneal (Achilles) tendon and attach onto the heel via the tendon. When the muscles contract your toes point downward. Many people find that massage therapy helps to restore the calf muscles to a more normal resting length and improves the painful symptoms of plantar fasciitis.
No matter what your activity, your lower leg muscles help provide stability and the finely-tuned movements of your feet. Eversion, inversion, dorsiflexion and plantar flexion are movements that are repeated over and over while we walk and run over rocky, root-laden forests and fields. If you have muscular discomfort or seek a greater range-of-motion, check in with your massage therapist and/or PT to see if it helps you feel better, go further, and run faster.
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Gina McCafferty is a licensed massage therapist, and heath coach who works with women in their peri and menopausal years who have 30 or more pounds to lose.