Compressed joints are pretty bad
See a quick video demo on the effects of joint compression on muscle control below:
If you’re a patient of mine, you’ve likely heard me talk about joint compression before, as well as experienced what it’s like to have a joint “de-compressed” with tractional adjustment. Joint compression is common and can take place all over the body. These compressions can be a result of both isolated traumas and compensatory load over time.
But what is a compressed joint?
Your joints are made to have a certain amount of space between the surfaces of each bone when relaxed. This space allows room for the joint lubricant between the surfaces (synovial fluid) to move and flow evenly. The result of the joint surfaces being in their correct alignment (centrated) and having well distributed lubrication, is a healthy, smooth, efficiently moving joint.
When you have an impact (such as in a fall or hit), or an unusual amount of repetitive load through the joint over time, the amount of space between the joint surfaces can be reduced. When the normal flow of synovial fluid isn’t able to occur, adhesions begin to form between the two surfaces. From here, the range and quality of movement at that joint starts to decline. This reduction in joint space can also create joint position abnormalities, and even leg length differences when it occurs in the hip and lower limb.
But it’s not just the joint that suffers…
Compression is a powerful irritant to the joint – not necessarily with symptoms in that area. Even so, the irritation is perceived by your nervous system. Joints have nerve fibres that travel directly from the ligament capsule that holds a joint together, to the local muscles around it. When irritated, these joints will then send signals to those muscles and use then to tighten and guard, in an attempt to reduce and prevent further irritation. If the compression isn’t resolved quickly, this can turn into chronic muscle tightness.
In patients with longterm pain, muscle and tendon tears, and osteoarthritis, this joint-muscle combination is almost always a huge factor; with the friction and poor movement wearing the joint quicker, and the constant muscle guarding putting repetitive stress on the tendon and muscle fibres.
Muscle tightness in and of itself can cause compression of a joint over time as well, however I find the relationship to be the other way the majority of the time in clinic.
Treating Joint Compression
The first point of call when dealing with a compressed joint is simple – decompression. Big improvements in compression can usually be made in one session. However, more complicated longterm compression cases can sometimes take a certain amount of treatment to return normal function, but improvement should occur steadily along the way.
The next most important treatment goal is to identify and eliminate predisposing factors that have been either increasing the likelihood of compression to a joint, or making the symptoms and chances of recovery worse e.g. a change in weight shift to one side more than the other, or incorrect muscle movement patterns.
If you’re experiencing joint or muscle pain, stiffness, or noticing strength or coordination imbalances, joint compression could likely be an issue for you.