Everyone Experiences Stiff Joints
Whether you are an elite athlete, or sit at your desk staring at a computer screen for the majority of the day, we all experience aches and pains at one time or another. Often, people will complain of soreness or pain around a particular joint or joints (i.e. an articulation or connection between bones), with common remarks such as: “my knees feel achy today,” “my back feels stiff,” or “my ankle feels locked.”
Unbeknownst to most, there are 206 bones in the adult body (Wikipedia). Our skeleton provides sturdy attachment sites for all of our muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When we want to move, our brain sends a signal to our muscles in a coordinated fashion to contract and pull on the bones they are connected to, which then leads to the desired movement.
The muscles contracting and pulling on the bones causes an action around a joint. We have different types of joints in the body, classified either by its structure or function. For example, we have fibrous joints (e.g. bones of the skull), cartilaginous joints (e.g. intervertebral discs of the spinal column), and synovial joints (e.g. the knee, hip, and shoulder). Synovial joints are the most common type of joint, and they are designed to allow the greatest amount of movement. Our ankles, elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders are all examples of a synovial joint – which contain a synovial cavity filled with a fluid that helps to allow frictionless movement (Triggerpoint: From Assessments to Performance, 2016). The anatomical structure of synovial joints is multi-planar (i.e. they move in more than one plane), and thus, allows for the most movement of all the joints in the body.
Mobility Allows Greater Movement Capacity
The upside to improved mobility is it allows us to move more freely (e.g. picture the navigation of an arm when throwing a baseball); however, the potential mobility can also lead to greater movement capacity problems – this is when someone can experience discomfort or pain around a joint or joints.
So, what can be done if you have stiff ankles, knees, hips, or at some other bony part of the body? We all tend to feel better after we start moving. Before a workout of any form, experts will always recommend a slow and gradual warm-up. One key component of any warm-up is to help stimulate the movement of fluids (i.e. fluid dynamics) in the body – increasing blood circulation, increasing lymph movement, increasing hydration of the tissues, and improving the viscosity of the synovial fluid within each joint, to allow for smoother and greater range of motion around the joints.
A very simple and fast technique called “Rub and Scrub” can be used to target the fluid dynamics surrounding a particular joint and the associated soft tissues (i.e. skin, fascia, muscles, and ligaments). It is a relatively new protocol created by Ian O’Dwyer (https://odonmovement.com/about-health-and-wellness-in-noosa/the-founder/) and highly endorsed by Institute of Motion (https://instituteofmotion.com/about/). It is a very simple, yet highly effective technique, whereby you use your hands around a bony area (e.g. ankle bones, knee bones, etc.) to create friction on the skin, which ultimately leads to a “warming up” of the localized area. This manual technique increases the movement of fluids (i.e. blood, lymph, etc.) and therefore, promotes better movement mechanics of the bony structures.
Our Joints are Multi-Planar!
Many dysfunctions in the body occur when we lose mobility, or the ability of the joints to move in a multi-planar fashion through its intended full range of motion. By increasing blood flow to the surrounding tissues and improving the fluid dynamics around the joint, we’re improving the capacity for the joint to move, and more importantly, to move properly. With proper joint movement, we’re less likely to experience dysfunction; therefore, potentially reducing our risk of injury, and a sense of pain or stiffness.
Effective and Simple Strategy to Help Your Stiff Joints
One Tool in Your Exercise Toolkit
One thing to understand is that we often experience pain, or some level of discomfort, in one region of the body when the actual problem may be stemming from another area in the body. For example, someone who experiences low back pain may need to work on the functioning of the pelvis or the thoracic spine to remedy their low-back problem. Another person who may not be able to achieve full flexion through their shoulder (i.e. bring the arm overhead) may need to assess their thoracic spine extensibility.
In general, trying to improve mobility of the ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder – all areas of the body that should naturally have greater ranges of motion than other joints – may put less stress on the areas of the body which need more stability (i.e. the foot, knee, low back, and shoulder blades). Visiting a professional who can perform a movement assessment is a great starting point to determine any movement dysfunctions that may be present and to develop a program to improve one’s functioning.
The “Rub and Scrub” protocol is one tool in the toolkit which anyone can implement on a daily basis to help encourage movement for a particular joint. It is effective, simple, and can be done anywhere with no equipment making it very accessible for all. Encouraging proper joint mechanics by increasing fluid dynamics is a great starting point to helping the body to move properly and potentially reduce stiffness, soreness, and injury.
Triggerpoint: From Assessments to Performance – Using Mobility as the Foundation for Function (2016); Pages 21-22.