The Downward Spiral

I’ve been thinking about it for ages and today I will finally begin tackling a problem that I have seen with increasing frequency: deviations in the big toe (bunions) and knees (knock knees), both of which I think are a result of a collapse in the spiral line.

So many times I come across clients who tell me they’ve had surgery on both big toes to correct bunions, and yet the bunions recur. I come across many runners with chronic recurring knee pain, normally treated with massage and insoles in their shoes. Over time the wear and tear builds up until they cannot run at all. Make no mistake about it: walking around against gravity does put load on our joints. Good alignment means that the loads get channelled through efficient pathways. Poor alignment leads to stresses and therefor injury. But fixing the issue by repositioning bones will achieve nothing unless the underlying movement pattern that is causing the deviation is addressed. Form follows function, you are how you move.

The other thing you need to do is stop thinking about the body as a number of separate parts stuck to each other. Your little toe is connected via fascial pathways all the way up to your neck and face. No it’s not Woo Woo. It’s fact.When we talk about holistic movement practices this is what we mean. It’s an approach to the body that sees it as a whole, interconnected structure. Key to this approach, is an emphasis on connective tissue, the stuff that literally connects every cell within the body. In 2001 Thomas Myers identified specific lines of pull across the fascial web, pathways around the body that he called ‘myofascial trains’. One of these is the Spiral Line.

Rather than take you through the anatomical details of this pathway, it might be easier to just look at this very short video of the spiral line, narrated by Thomas Myers. The line runs along specific muscles that are fascially connected so as to create one continual line along which tension is transferred and distributed. They’ve drawn the line on just one side, but obviously this is also present on the other side of the body too. The lines cross the body and create a stirrup around the foot.

I think this is such a key fascial line because it moves across a number of planes. The front and back lines are mainly involved in forwards and backwards movement, the lateral line stabilises the sides of the body. They are the ‘simpler’ lines in this sense. But the spiral line works with or against rotation making it a more complex one. Forward, backward and side ways movement never really is simply forwards, backwards or sideways. When we walk we don’t just move forwards. We’re actually moving in spirals. The problem occurs when there simply isn’t enough support from the other lines, in particular from the inner line of the body (the core) and lateral line (the gluts) which means that rather than using the spiral line to make our movement more efficient, many of us are hanging into our spirals.

When you do not lift out of the spiral line from the feet upwards, you place the rotational force on the vulnerable joints of the knees, ankles and toes. The knees knocking inwards and big toes pointing outwards are adjustments to the force of body weight being channelled downwards and inwards when we attempt to move forwards. I’ve come to think of this as the downward spiral and its effects can be pretty debilitating.

Spiral line issues do not only affect the legs. When clients complain of knee pain there is often a degree of ‘fuzzing’ (a build up of fascial tissue) under the opposite shoulder blade to the affected knee. This is because the inefficiency of the lower limb puts strain on the line higher up the body. You don’t run or walk with your legs only, your arm swing and rotation in the spine is all part of the movement too. This is why a long distance runner can get shoulder pain when they tire.

So how does one pull out of the downward spiral?

First of all, stop thinking about the parts in isolation. You need to look at your overall movement. Clients often get a bit confused when I start teaching a standard class and don’t simply focus on the ‘bad’ bit. The truth is that the painful area is rarely the  source of the pattern. It is more likely to simply be the area that has compensated the most. So yes we do need to work to relieve the stress on the area. However the re-training focus needs to be on what’s happening above and below the point of torsion. Also note that sometimes relieving one part of the structure involves just leaving it alone! The thoraco-lumbar fascia (in the lower back) is one area in particular that should not be stretched around.

Secondly, we need to work the muscles. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s surprisingly difficult especially for hyper-mobile clients. Connective tissue itself (which includes tendons and ligaments), cannot be contracted. We cannot really change the elasticity or rigidity of connective tissues. But we can control the tone of muscles which lie within the fascial lines. As James Earls says in ‘Born to Walk’: “the muscles are essentially the fine tuners of the system, adding or subtracting  tension when needed, via the fascial tissues of the body.”

And finally, if you are moving in a way that causes the deviation, then that ‘way’ is also going to feel the most natural. Most of us stand and move more or less unconsciously so changing a pattern requires increasing your body awareness so that you notice when you are falling into a bad habit in the first place. Increasing awareness takes time and requires some kind of external feedback system too, ie: we need someone else to tell us how we are moving. Going to an exercise class where a teacher is able to look at how you are moving and give you regular feedback and corrections is essential.

I’ve learnt from working with various clients that there is no quick fix, in my next post/s I’ll focus on a few key areas and offer some suggestions of things you can do alone to stop the downward spiral in its tracks 🙂

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