Updated: Oct 16, 2018
Do you have trouble turning your head to back your car out of a driveway? Do you wake with stiff, sore joints and often struggle to get moving in the morning? Or have you noticed you don't move as freely as you used to? The thing is, stiff joints can be a warning sign of a much greater problem.
Think of an inflamed sprained ankle. Redness, swelling, heat, and increased blood flow ensues. The blood brings with it specialized cells to mop up and repair the damaged tissue, which is a vital healing response. Reduced movement, stiffness and swelling is common when a joint is inflamed. But sometimes the inflammatory response can continue on a more chronic basis or permanent damage occurs. Especially if the ankle is not given enough time to heal, if there is haphazard remodeling of the tissue, or if scar (fibrotic) tissue accumulates. Adequate nutrition is also required to have the building blocks to heal appropriately and effectively. But unfortunately poor gut absorption and nutrient deficiencies are common for many of us.
Inflammation is beneficial, in fact, vital to healing. But it is highly detrimental if ongoing and chronic.
It is now believed that chronic, low-level inflammation plays a major role in almost every chronic, Western disease. This includes heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune conditions, Alzheimer’s and various degenerative conditions.
The Robbin's Pathology textbook states that stiffness in joints is a response from the inflammation - fibrosis cascade. Although inflammation is the natural healing response of the body to a stress such as a trauma, injury, toxin or infection. Fibrosis or scarring can often occur leading to poor movement and/or function. Also permanent damage to the tissue (or joint) can occur when poorly healed, which can also be a cause of joint stiffness.
So if joint stiffness is ultimately a response to inflammation and ineffective healing, then it stands to reason that its frequent presence is a warning sign of an underlying inflammatory condition that needs to be addressed. One that could, without realizing it, be causing more than the symptom of poor joint motion.
I often find that chronic inflammation and poor healing is the result of underlying and unknown food sensitivities, infection, toxicity and/or poor gut health. These can lead to a cascade of chronic health issues, where the symptoms are typically only addressed with drugs or surgery.
Even environmental factors seem to play a role in autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) which causes chronic inflammation of the joints in the body.
Although the joint stiffness that occurs in osteoarthritis (OA) doesn't necessarily have hot, swollen and inflamed joints, previous injury or stress to the joints leads to damage to the joint structure, and through poor repair or ongoing stress, results in stiffness.
Ultimately the stiffness is due to physical stress, environmental factors that cause inflammation and inadequate and ineffective healing.
The inflammation-fibrosis pathway doesn't just have an impact on our body but on our brain.
We are constantly sensing our environment, receiving information from touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. But also we are able to sense where our joints, muscles and tendons are in our body. This sixth sense is called proprioception. Our clever body can not only access that information but store it. We can even remember our body's position without the other senses of sight, sound and touch. Such as when we walk down a dark hallway in our own home or when stepping off a kerb.
This proprioceptive feedback messages to and from our brain are important for movement and learning and can help prevent falls and injuries. It is particularly important for athletes such as gymnasts to "know" where their body is in space. Movement essentially stimulates the brain. With the brain making constant changes based on the information it receives.
So what happens when we become stiff and immobile? When we lose our ability to move?
The brain receives less stimulation. We see less, we hear less and we process less information. Many studies have shown that the rate at which the brain can atrophy and die is related to physical activity and movement.
In our tech driven society, physical inactivity is at epidemic levels.
A study in the US found that high school students have their head down for around 5000 hrs per year!
Increased use of handheld devices has even lead to the term "text neck". The major complaints being neck pain, muscle tension and joint stiffness from a forward, head down posture.
Finding ways to get moving, stretch, address poor posture and reduce periods of inactivity are obviously important. But like the wheel alignment being out on a car, if a joint is having trouble moving freely it could lead to more stress or wear and tear on the joint as we attempt to move it. Possibly leading to further inflammation, fibrosis and joint stiffness.
Chiropractic care offers a unique mechanism to restore movement to stiff joints and increase proprioceptive input to the brain. The brain is then able to more accurately assess where the joints, muscles and tissues of your body are in space, and coordinate movement better. Additional neurological pathways to and from the brain then appear to function better, such as those through the cerebellum where 80% of neurons are.
Ultimately studies indicate that chiropractic adjustments change the way the brain functions!
Chiropractic, however, is not the only thing required for joint mobility, health and brain function. We still need to address the underlying causes of inflammation and poor healing ability. Furthermore we need to keep moving, stretching and exercising to keep stimulating the brain.
So as they say move it, or lose it!
Further reading / references
Inflammation, wound repair, and fibrosis: reassessing the spectrum of tissue injury and resolution https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3996448/
Joint Stiffness Is Heritable and Associated with Fibrotic Conditions and Joint Replacement https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4509645/
The Jeremiah Metzger Lecture: Inflammation, Immune Modulators, and Chronic Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26330682
Relationship between physical activity and brain atrophy progression. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22776876
Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241367/
Hippocampal atrophy and memory dysfunction associated with physical inactivity in community‐dwelling elderly subjects: The Sefuri study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5318373/