Written on January 17, 2008 at 10:05 am, by Eric Cressey
Inefficiency vs. Pathology
Q: I read with great interest your baseball interview at T-Nation, as I have two sons who play high school baseball. More interestingly to me, though, was this statement:
“Pathology (e.g., labral fraying) isn’t as important as dysfunction; you can have a pathology, but not be symptomatic if you still move well and haven’t hit “threshold” from a degenerative or traumatic standpoint.”
Is this something that can be applied to the rest of the body?
A: Great question – and the answer is a resounding “Absolutely!”
Many musculoskeletal issues are a function of cumulative trauma on a body with some degree of underlying inefficiency. People reach threshold when they do crazy stuff – or ignore inefficiencies – for long enough. Here are a few examples:
Lower Back Pain
As I touched on in a recent newsletter, we put a lot of compressive loading on our spines in the typical weight-training lifestyle – and you’d be surprised at how many people have spondylolysis (vertebral fractures) that aren’t symptomatic. But there’s more…
A 1994 study in the New England Journal of Medicine sent MRIs of 98 “healthy” backs to various doctors, and asked them to diagnose them. The doctors were not told that the patients felt fine and had no history of back pain.
80% of the MRI interpretations came back with disc herniations and bulges. In 38% of the patients, there was involvement of more than one disc.
It’s estimated that 85% of lower back pain patients don’t get a precise diagnosis.
You’d be amazed at how many people are walking around with labral fraying/SLAP lesions, partially torn rotator cuffs, and bone spurs. However, only a handful of people are in debilitating pain – and others just have a testy shoulder that acts up here and there. What’s the issue?
These individuals might have a fundamental defect in place, but they’ve likely improved scapular stability, rotator cuff strength/endurance, thoracic spine range-of-motion, soft tissue quality, cervical spine function, breathing patterns, mobility of the opposite hip/ankle, and a host of other contributing factors – to the point that their issues don’t become symptomatic.
They do a lot of Tommy John surgeries and ulnar nerve transpositions for elbow issues that can often be resolved with improving internal rotation range-of-motion at the shoulder, or cleaning up soft tissue restrictions on flexor carpi ulnaris, flexor carpi radialis, pronator teres, etc.
According to Dr. Glenn Fleisig, during the throwing motion, at maximal external rotation during the cocking phase, there is roughly 64 Nm of varus torque at the elbow in elite pitchers. This is equivalent to having a 40-pound weight pulling the hand down.
The other day, I emailed back and forth with my good friend, physical therapist John Pallof about elbows in throwing athletes, and he said the following:
“Over the long term, bone changes just like any other connective tissue according to the stresses that are placed on it. Most every pitcher I see has some structural and/or alignment abnormality – it’s just a question of whether it becomes symptomatic. Many have significant valgus deformities. Just disgusting forces put on a joint over and over and over again.”
Makes you wonder who is really “healthy,” doesn’t it?
I can’t tell you how many carpal tunnel surgeries can be avoided when people get soft tissue work done on scalenes, pec minor, coracobrachialis, and several other upper extremity adhesion sites – or adjustments at the cervical spine – but I can tell you it’s a lot.
Many ACL tears go completely undiagnosed; people never become symptomatic.
I know several people who have ruptured PCLs from car crashes or contact injuries – but they work around them.
Some athletes have big chunks of the menisci taken out, but they can function at 100% while other athletes are in worlds of pain with their entire menisci in place.
Many knee issues resolve when you clear up adhesions in glute medius, popliteus, rectus femoris, ITB/TFL, psoas, and the calves/peroneals; improve ankle and hip mobility; and get the glutes firing.
I’m of the belief that all stress on our systems is shared by the active restraints and passive restraints. Active restraints include muscles and tendons – the dynamic models of our bodies. Passive restraints include labrums, menisci, ligaments, and bone; some of them can get a bit stronger (particularly bone), but on the whole, they aren’t as dynamic as muscles and tendons.
Now, if the stress is shared between active and passive restraints, wouldn’t it make sense that strong and mobile active restraints would protect ligaments, menisci, and labrums? The conventional medical model – whether it’s because of watered-down physical therapy due to stingy insurance companies or just a desire to do more surgeries – fixes the passive restraints first. In some cases, this is good. In other cases, it does a disservice to the dynamic ability of the body to protect itself with adaptation.
I’m also of the belief that there are only a handful of exercises that are genuinely bad; upright rows, leg presses, and leg extensions are a few examples. The rest are just exercises that are bad for certain people – or exercises that are bad when performed with incorrect technique.
With these latter two issues in mind, find the inefficiency, fix it, and you’d be surprised at how well your body works when it moves efficiently.
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