Where did my range of motion go?

Movement therapists spend their workday helping their clients reclaim movements that once belonged to them but they don’t have access to. Every body is different and every body has a different way of managing its movements. Let’s look at some common themes among my clients.

Starting with the feet.

There are 33 joints in the foot and each joint should have mobility in three planes. Many joints plus three planes allows an almost unimaginable number of different configurations the feet can take on. Your feet are meant to effortlessly access this endless array of shapes. But an overarching (haha) theme is either immobile feet or feet that are missing access to a few critical shapes.

You’ve probably heard the terms ‘flat feet’ or ‘overpronated’ feet. Many of my clients and those attending my workshops have feet stuck in a pronated position. This is where the long arch of the foot is pressed down onto the floor. If your feet can only access this one shape then they are missing out on creating shapes that help your body to move you around the way it was designed: more efficiently and with fewer aches and pains.

The opposite of flat feet are feet with ‘high arches’. The feet are stuck in a position where the long arch is up high, shortening the foot and preventing it from relaxing. Esthetically this might be quite a lovely foot to look at, but functionally it is as problematic as flat feet. The high arched foot can’t relax into the ground to create the spring effect that bounces you up off the ground as you bear weight on your leg. Feet need to move well in order to allow the rest of your body to move well. Feet that don’t move well are asking other body parts to do the work for them, with less efficiency.

We couldn’t talk about feet without addressing the ankles. The most common issue I see with the ankles is following a sprain. In a sprain, the foot is rapidly rolled onto the outside of the foot (usually) and it causes the lower leg bone on the outside of your shin, the fibula, to get jammed in a downwards position. The very bottom of this bone is the ‘headphone’-like structure on the outside of your ankle. When the fibula gets stuck down it gets in the way of your heel bone and doesn’t let it move about freely like it’s supposed to. The result is a foot that can’t make the shapes it needs to make and other joints having to pick up the slack. Freeing up the movement of the fibula can often create relief for the feet, knees and sides of the hips.

Knees

Most people I see in clinic either come in for knee pain or we discover during their initial assessment that their knee is getting creative. Because they sit between the ankles and the hips, the knees get the brunt of what’s going on above and below them. They hold up most of your body weight and they have to both bend and rotate. If a joint’s job is to both hold up weight and rotate but isn’t quite seated as it should be, there’s going to be uneven grinding in the joint. Knees often have to compensate for what isn’t quite happening in those surrounding joints. If your hips aren’t able to move in the three planes as they should or your ankle is restricted from its range of motion, your knee has to do more than it was meant to do.

What I often see are knees that don’t quite bend or straighten, upper leg bones that rotate the opposite way they are meant to putting pressure on the knees, ankles that can’t quite bend so they ask the knees or Achilles tendon to do more, or hips that can’t flex or rotate asking the knees to pick up the slack. Often just teaching my client to redistribute the amount of rotation or bending in the joints above and below the knees will take pressure off the knees. We discover it’s not always about the knees at all. As one of my favourite quotes from Ida Rolf says ‘where you think it is, it ain’t’.

Hips

Our hips are pretty incredible structures and feats of engineering. They support our bodies, have a large amount of rotational range, allow us to walk, run, squat, carry heavy loads, keep our balance and climb hills. All on two legs! There are quite a number of configurations our hips should be able to access easily and yet many of these configurations have gone missing.

One of them is the ability to extend our leg behind us. This means allowing the leg to travel behind you with a straight knee with the pelvis staying still. Think of a gondola captain in Venice propelling a boat forward with a pole extended behind the boat. Many of us have lost this movement. We are stuck in the opposite position where the leg can only stay in front of our pelvis or if it goes behind us we compensate by bending the knee. In walking, movement therapist can recognize this as a series of controlled falls rather than propelling ourselves along with a strong back leg.

I also see clients missing the ability to hike their hips on one side or drop it on the opposite side and similarly missing the ability to shift their weight from one foot to the other, managing their mass perpetually right down the middle or only on one leg.

Why do we want to be able to move our hips? Well, there’s a reason all the biggest muscles in your body are attached around your centre of mass, which lies near your bellybutton. Moving you from your centre of mass is the most efficient way to move you around. Moving you from somewhere else is less efficient and will lead to muscles and joints not set up for the job to start complaining.

And finally, the spine.

Our spines are amazing springs and gyroscopes. Their curves act like springs to absorb the shocks from each step we take. They rotate and bend to make our steps more fluid and efficient. They hold up our weight and give attachment sites for all the big muscles that let us move stuff around. They do a lot for us, if we let them.

In clinic I frequently see spines that are missing a curve, aren’t quite able to rotate or bend to one side, or are shaped like the postures my client spends most of their time in. Restoring the curves and movements of the spine can go a long way to improving movement efficiency.

Now I know you’re asking why?

Why are our feet, knees, hips and spines doing funky, creative stuff they weren’t meant to do? Two main reasons: because they have to find a way and because of the environment we have given them.

Our bodies are clever. If you have an injury and moving in the usual way hurts, your body will find a work around. If it didn’t, you’d never walk again. And that’s not very functional. So it finds a way. After the injury, you’ve ingrained your new creative way of moving and you stay in that new pattern.

The second reason is because of your environment. Maybe you sit a lot so your feet, knees, hips and spine are expert-level good at a sitting position but beginner level at walking or moving any other way. Maybe you have spent years in shoes (and walking only on flat surfaces) that haven’t given your feet a chance to learn how to move around. Maybe you spend a ton of time looking down at your phone or doing repetitive tasks on only one side of your body at work so your body is an expert at those movements but not the opposite movements.

The solution is to both find access to those movements you’ve lost and spend more time moving in new ways. If we use our full range of motion every day then we never lose access to it. I’m not talking about crazy-hard exercise classes only the most highly-coordinated and athletic people can do or spending countless hours in the gym doing a long, hard-to-remember list of exercises. I’m talking about just move more. Sit in different ways. Try out things you liked as a kid. Roll around, swing on things, squat down to look at flowers, make your own bread, start a garden, watch a movie lying on a mountain of blankets and pillows on the ground, learn the Rubik’s cube, play Twister. None of it is challenging. It just requires a choice to move.