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osteopathy 101

Decompensation patterns:                         Or, how pain in your neck can come from your big toe

Decompensation patterns: Or, how pain in your neck can come from your big toe

The cool thing about being an osteopath (apart from the whole saving-humanity-from-bodily-torments thing) is discovering how the body works as an interconnected structure.

Imagine a tree, where the branches are bare. Now, attach elastic ropes between the branches, some tight, some loose, some short connections, and some longer ones. The body is much like this structure, made up of elastic elements (muscles) and more stiff elements (bones). If you pull on one elastic on our magical tree, you’ll see the whole tree move in a certain way. If you pull on one branch at the top, you may see branches on the other side move as well.

This is what we call tensegrity. The ability of a structure to move in an interconnected way, because it is made up of both elastic and stiff structures which transmit tensile forces across the whole structure.

And this is key.



You may say we are not trees, but when a particular part of our body moves differently, or a muscle is tighter, it does affect everything else, like in the tree metaphor. Try lifting your arms above your head while you are sitting in a slumped position. Now try again when your back is straighter. You should notice quite a big difference in your ability to do so. How? Tensegrity, my friend.

Similarly, if a part of our body, joint or muscle, can’t move as well as it should, the other parts of the body have to work harder to let you continue to be able to do whatever you were doing.

Or not.

Decompensation patterns occur when a particular part of your body cannot cope any longer with the added burden of overworking for the part that stopped pulling its own weight. It’s when you get pain.

This is the type of pain that worsens over period of time, without you recollecting actually injuring that painful part. Or the pain that you get when you do too much of a particular activity. In short, this is the pain you might go to the doctor for. They won’t know the exact cause, so if they doesn’t suspect anything major, they’ll just give you some mild pain killers and ask you to come back in a month or so. If you are reading this, my guess is that you would get that icky feeling that the drugs are just hiding the pain, which, by the way, you still don’t know the real cause of.

The painful area is the result of another part not working well (which you usually don’t notice).

 Even though the idea that neck pain can be caused by your big toe may seem pretty far-fetched, it’s an image to illustrate the not-so-unconceivable fact that we do see people with neck or back problems because of pain or restrictions lower down. This could cause them to walk differently, or maybe twist one hip a little. In this example, this twisting can continue up the spine and may cause pain in the higher spinal joints there which are trying to twist in the opposite way to counter-balance and keep the upper body facing forward.

This is but one example among an array of possible scenarios. Decompensation patterns are so common, and can be the origin of anything from minor tendon irritations, to long term disabilities.

But don’t despair! The good news is that osteopaths can trace back what the cause of the pain is, and treat what caused the problem in the first place. This is the difference between a therapy which provides relief, and a targeted treatment which results in long-lasting resolution of the pain.


Please let us know your experience, thoughts, questions and other ideas through the comments' section! Or talk directly to your osteopath, Sam Mallinson, for further discussion on this topic.