I recently had a patient ask me what is the one thing I would recommend to someone to decrease their risk of injury while playing sports. It took me a second to think of an answer because of how many different options there are available to decrease such a risk. These options include strength and conditioning, performance enhancement exercises, corrective exercises, rehabilitation, general fitness and sport-specific programs. But out of all these options, what is truly the one thing that I would recommend for injury prevention? I guess the short answer would be none. Now I’m not saying that these are not important, because at certain times they absolutely are, but the one thing that is even more essential is proper mobility. This is probably the one thing I see most often that can not only be easily corrected, but can save you a lot of pain and strained muscles down the road.
How is Mobility Essential?
Our bodies are made to move. But what is incredible is that even when something might not be functioning correctly, our bodies still find a way around to keep moving. Furthermore, our bodies are able to maintain this compensation for a long time, sometimes even years. What we see is that when these areas stop moving, adjacent areas just pick up the slack and move a little more. A good example of this is seen during walking: when we lose hip extension, the low back and/or knee will often work overtime and will try to extend more with each step. The low back and knee have to move extra to make up for that lazy hip. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-term, it’s essentially the way the body guards against injury (think about how you limp after rolling an ankle). This becomes a problem over the long-term, when our joints and tissue simply cannot handle the stress of the extra work any longer and fail. We know this breakdown more commonly as pain.
What is Proper Mobility?
While the majority of the population needs increased mobility, there is a small sub-group that actually has excess mobility. These are typically the people that when they lock their knees they actually go backwards a little. These are the ultra-flexible individuals who could bend backwards and into a pretzel simultaneously. But if mobility is a good thing, how could too much be bad? Well, the problem arises due to the fact that our joints gain stability through two mechanisms: the ligaments and the muscles. When we have too much mobility, it means that the passive joint stabilizers (ligaments) aren’t doing their job, leaving all the work to the dynamic joint stabilizers (muscles). If our muscles aren’t up for the job, due to deconditioning, we have just left ourselves open to the same type of injury described above. Too much movement, over a prolonged time, breaks down the tissue and leaves you open to injury and pain.
How Do I Change My Mobility?
This is the easy part! If you don’t move enough in certain areas, make it move more. If you move too much in certain areas, make it move less. It is really that easy! A functional movement assessment offers a great deal of insight into how well your joints are moving and will give you an idea where to start. For areas of decreased mobility you could try dynamic stretching, tri-planar exercises, myofascial release and chiropractic manipulation. These will all help to promote mobility of the joint and the surrounding tissue, allowing those painful areas to calm down a little since they now can take a break. For areas of excess mobility, your only real option is strength training (bracing is also an option, but should be used cautiously). Like stated earlier, the passive stability system (ligaments) are not sufficient to protect the joint, we must now rely upon the dynamic stabilizers (muscles). A functional, whole-body strength program can adequately stabilize the joints, giving these areas injury insurance.
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