Massage Therapy and Joint Play

I took a really good course last weekend that covered Joint Play. This is a really important part of everything from injury prevention to rehabilitation. A joint is the place where two bones meet and one of the bones moves around the other in it’s intended range of motion. A great example is the shoulder joint. The main shoulder joint is where the top of the arm bone attaches to the outside of the shoulder blade. As the arm moves around the socket at the outer part of the shoulder blade, there needs to be small motion that occurs inside the shoulder joint. That is the joint play.  If the end of the arm bone is the ball and the edge of the shoulder blade is the socket, good joint play range of motion ensures that the ball stays within the socket space no matter where the arms moves to. If that small motion isn’t there, the arm movement will stop and reach the end of it’s range prematurely and can mimic Frozen Shoulder. It’s like a hinge in a door that doesn’t move well, so the door doesn’t close. It feels like it catches or pinches causing local shoulder pain that can begin to travel causing neck, rib pain and headaches. A lot of my success with treating the shoulder is just returning that small essential motion in the joint. These small motions can occur in the jaw (TMJ), the spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hip, Sacroiliac joint, knees, feet to name a few. Each of these joints have their own movements and often any limitations can be restored. The treatment for restoring joint mobility is a little different from standardized massage therapy as the treatment is very regionalized but I feel like it is such a crucial part of getting to the cause of dysfunction/discomfort. There is always treatment to the surrounding muscle tissue, especially the symptomatic one in addition to the joint play treatment. I remember one teacher saying that if you have a painful/tired muscle, look to see what joint they move. For example, if you have a sore biceps muscle on your arm, I look at the shoulder and elbow movement. If someone has a sore front leg muscle, I look at the hip and the knee joint. It’s not well known that the ribs are also very mobile during torso and arm movement and breathing, and in our society, the ribs are commonly stiff and can benefit from mobilization. Very often, I have found that treating just the tight muscle may feel good for a shorter period of time, but can return if there is an involvement in the surrounding joints.

Having said all that, there is opportunity for pain to refer away from where the joint is not functioning properly. Neck joints in the spine can cause pain down the arms or produce headaches. Low back spine joints can refer pain into the hip or down the leg and mimic Sciatica. A stiff joint in the foot can produce pain that goes up the leg. There is a thought out there that you find the pain but look for the cause elsewhere.

Having joint play in my treatment tool box has vastly reduced pain and dysfunction with patients, increasing functionality and improving daily activities. It is a gentle treatment and follows with the Osteopathic process, which often reveals very good results. Be gentle and the body will let you do more. As always, the patient’s success is partly what we do in the treatments, but just as much, it is important for the patient to be involved so they can continue to improve at home with stretches, exercises and movement/posture changes. It continues with the philosphy that we were designed to move a certain way and very often dysfunction can occur when we don’t.

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