The body is made up of hundreds of different bones, and hundreds of different muscles. Together, these combine to make up your musculoskeletal system. Central to this system is the intermediating tissue that enables your muscles and bones to work together: the connective tissue.
Connective tissue ranges from muscular fascia to ligaments to joint capsules. Different types of connective tissue have different properties, but many share a few key characteristics: your connective tissue is tough and built to last decades, withstanding tons of resistance, and uncountable repetitions in movement.
Yet like any other part of the body, the condition of your connective tissue is dependent on its day-to-day adaptations. In ideal conditions, connective joint tissue allows a joint to move through a normal range of motion, maximizing the transference of force from the muscles through the body, while minimizing unnecessary friction to the surrounding connective, bone, or muscle tissues.
A healthy shoulder can hold the arm in a stable position while it balances an unstable weight overhead, like lifting your grandchildren. Healthy hips and knees allow you to climb stairs, walk up and down hill, and move from a crouching position to a standing one without pain or discomfort. Healthy joints can reduce the risk of injury from a fall or twisting motion.
However, joint mobility can be compromised with time, or through injury. A torn ligament may heal improperly, or may shorten upon recovery due to a lack of movement, and poorer adaptations in the joint tissue. If you spend relatively little time walking or moving a limb through its entire range of motion, especially after getting hurt, then the tissues may stiffen, the muscles will weaken, and your mobility will be compromised. When you do move through that range of motion again, it may be uncomfortable or even painful.
How Does Chronic Pain Impact Joint Mobility?
Chronic pain can accelerate the problem. Regardless of the cause of the pain, chronic pain can lead to kinesiophobia in patients, or a fear of pain through movement. If we experience knee pain while squatting, we’re unlikely to want to squat again – even though the same movements that cause discomfort may be helpful in addressing and mediating that pain in the long-term.
The perception of pain leads to less movement, which causes maladaptation in the muscles and joints because of disuse, which leads to mental and physical degeneration, and more pain. A vicious cycle.
Improving your joint mobility through a structured program with the help and supervision of a physical therapist or kinesiology professional can help you reclaim full range of motion in each of your joints, improve your physical and mental health, regain quality of life, and reduce your day-to-day joint pain and discomfort.
Nerve damage may play another role. Chronic pain due to peripheral neuralgia can make exercising difficult, let alone following a structured program. While improving your joint mobility can help reduce pain and prevent its development, there are still other causes of chronic pain that may require a different approach.
Just as there is rarely one cause of pain, there is often more than one solution to it. Improving your mobility and strength through physical therapy can be an important part of a larger, multi-pronged pain management program.
Improving Joint Mobility
What is joint mobility? Mobility, in the physiological sense, is the ability to access a particular range of motion without pain or assistance.
Your mobility can determine whether you are able to perform certain actions, such as crouching and standing up unassisted, bending over to tie your shoes, or going for a hike. A lack of mobility may mean that certain ranges of motion are accompanied by discomfort or pain, or that certain movements become entirely impossible, like a shoulder freezing up or locking halfway through its natural range of motion in the frontal or coronal plane.
You can improve your joint mobility in the same way you might improve your physical strength: incrementally, and through a structured program that encourages progressive overload. This translates into two important tenets.
- Take small steps.
- Pursue improvement over time.
Joint mobility exercises may differ from person to person. The conventional wisdom would be that if you want to improve your strength and mobility through a certain movement or range of motion, you would do that movement or range of motion, or choose a pain-free analogue to begin with. You may regain the strength and mobility to achieve a squatting motion by beginning with assisted squats in and out of a chair, or a higher position, and incrementally moving towards your goal.
Injuries are more likely to happen when the joint is being asked to do something too far beyond its current capabilities. But by pursuing improvement in flexibility, mobility, and strength from session to session, you can minimize pain while taking advantage of the benefits of long-term exercise, such as the release of pain-killing endorphins.
A personalized plan is crucial. The post-injury rehabilitation program of a world-class athlete in their 30s will look drastically different to that of a senior patient who spent most of the last five years in a sedentary state. Yet the same tenets apply across different bodies and circumstances – making informed decisions, on a session-to-session basis, to pursue improvements in strength and mobility, while minimizing pain.
If you want to learn more about how you can start improving your joint mobility at home, it is a good idea to talk to a physical therapist or a doctor.
Picking programs off the internet might give you some idea as to how you could program your training, or which exercises to choose, but there is no universal program for all levels of fitness, or all circumstances – especially if you have a history of joint pain, immobility, or chronic pain.
Specialized programs will take into consideration your particular history with exercise and sports, your experience, your rate of recovery, and your individual needs and goals as a patient. Remember: the body is capable of amazing changes. But you need the proper stimulus – adapted individually – to elicit these changes.
Take the First Step Towards Pain-Free Living Today