Imagine that you and a friend are sitting atop a high wall when you lose your balance. As you start to tumble, your friend grabs hold of your arm. Now you’re hanging off the wall, your friend’s grasp the only thing between you and disaster. Your (fortunately quite strong) friend starts to pull you up, which puts painful strain on your shoulder.
What do you do? And in this moment, how much do you care about the shoulder pain?
The Logical Answer
You try anything you can think of to help your friend save you. You might grab hold of their arm to double your contact with safety, reach for the edge of the wall with your free hand, or feel around with your feet for a foothold or traction on the wall. When the emergency is over, you feel eternally grateful to your friend for saving your life.
An Alternate Answer
You try to pull away. You call out to your friend, “Let go! You’re hurting my shoulder!” When the moment is over, you feel confused and angry. You might never feel completely safe around this person again.
Sounds ridiculous, no? Talk about losing sight of your priorities.
Now shift the circumstances: you are standing on safe ground and your friend reaches for your hand. For no apparent reason, your friend jerks you across the room, hurting your shoulder in the process. In this context, doesn’t the Alternate Answer above start to make sense?
Selecting the appropriate response depends not just on the details of your current situation (is my friend saving me from danger?) but more importantly on your being aware of that situation.
Where Are We Going with This?
Most clients come to my office because of either pain or movement limitations, and they often express anger at the compromised body part: “That’s my bad hip,” “My shoulder is killing me!” or “Can’t you just cut it off?” are some of the more common publishable refrains.
If we believe the body part is causing us pain without reason, those expressions make sense. However, we are often missing important details of the situation unfolding in our bodies. When we uncover those hidden details, we learn the body is doing important work. Often, the key to resolving dysfunction and pain becomes obvious.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
A not-uncommon recent example: a client came to me with pain in the front of her left hip, reporting that it always felt tight. As she walked, I noticed she wasn’t getting full extension in her hip.
The pattern continued both up- and down-stream: her low back was stuck in extension (lordosis) and she couldn’t fully flex her ankle.
The “logical answer” might be to help lengthen her hip flexors and the muscles in her calf. Had I done so, she might have felt better after our session, but then gotten frustrated when everything tightened up again only a few hours later. No matter how much this client stretched, she would not have found lasting comfort. Believe me, I know this one. In the early days of my practice, I had a cameo in that unfortunate movie a couple of times.
On deeper inspection, I noticed that my client’s colon was adhered to her iliac fascia, the fascia lining the inside of the hip bone and its surrounding structures. With gentle separation of the colon from the iliac fascia (which took a few minutes at the most), the client’s hip had full function, as did her ankle. Weeks later, the freedom remained and the pain had not recurred.
Understanding the Body’s Priorities
When it comes to self-preservation, your body has a clear set of priorities. Organs come first, then nerves and blood vessels. Muscles and joints are relatively low on the list. This makes sense: you can live indefinitely with a hip that doesn’t fully extend. However, if the hip has full mobility and yanks on the colon, the femoral artery, or the femoral nerve with every step, you are likely to get into trouble.
Suddenly, the “stuck” hip that seemed like such a problem child is revealed as a hero. Thank you, dear Hip, for locking things down to keep my organs safe even when it caused you pain, you smart, fearless model of anatomic perfection.
Too far? Maybe. But how would life change if we thought about our bodies in that way? What would it be like to communicate with your body with skill and compassion? To understand the full breadth of reality and address root problems rather than battling with your body over the resulting symptoms? And what if we practiced this skill when we’re not hanging off a wall, but before there’s an emergency?