It’s Just A Muscle
[originally published in KCN, Febuary 2003]
“I really did something to my back — but I think it’s just a muscle.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard patients tell me this. Yes, the muscle might be spasmed and painful, but the truth is the problem is rarely just a muscle — no more than is it just a bone or just a nerve. It’s a bit more complicated. More often there are multiple factors at play.
Muscle spasms and tightness are often a reflection of a more complex problem at hand. Chiropractors see this all the time. And we even have a nifty name for it: the Vertebral Subluxation Complex. Complex, because its composed many different parts (bone, nerve, and muscle to name three) that “sound off,” more or less, simultaneously when you wretch your back— much like when multiple notes are strummed on a guitar to produce a musical chord. So, the muscular aspect of the Vertebral Subluxation Complex (known as myopathology) is just one of the “notes” comprising this “back pain chord.”
As guardians of the spine, we chiropractors know that when one of the twenty-four movable bones (vertebrae) of the back and neck lose their normal motion or position through any variety of means — whether it’s slipping on a banana peel, stressing over a job, or sleeping on the couch — it can be a source of pain and can irritate and pinch the delicate nerve roots that exit out at each level to service the entire body (including the muscles). The presence of this painful “jamming of vertebrae” will reflexively cause the adjacent muscles to clamp down in a “guarding” fashion to naturally immobilize the area and prevent further harm. Add to this the fact that the nerves that supply these muscles are likely being chaffed by the offending vertebrae — and thus causing more tightness — and you’ve got yourself quite a rat’s nest. For a vicious cycle is created — one that practitioner’s endearingly refer to as the “pain-spasm-pain cycle”. Simply put, it’s like a dog chasing his own tail.
Let’s say you slipped on that banana peel I mentioned above, jamming the vertebrae and straining the associated muscles. This obviously creates some pain, which in turn causes the muscles to spasm in an attempt to “guard” the situation. This spasming however, generates its own pain, which causes the muscles to spasm further and create — you guessed it — more pain. And the cycle continues, snowballing in proportion.
So how does one do battle with such an out of control “dog”? Well, the trick, no matter what the intervention — be it chiropractic adjustments, muscle relaxers, pain pills, massage, heating pads, electric stimulation, rubber chickens — is to somehow “break” this vicious cycle. With the exception of rubber chickens, all of the interventions listed (and these are but a sampling) have some merit and are capable of “breaking” this cycle to a degree. Unfortunately, most of them produce only short-lived breaks of relief. This can be quite frustrating because the back condition never fully goes away — becoming a recurrent problem that crops up again and again, at the most inconvenient of times. Only one though — the chiropractic adjustment — is capable of addressing the problem at its core. By restoring alignment and motion to the injured vertebrae, the hidden culprit behind the “just-a-muscle syndrome”— the one that fuels its annoying existence — is cut off at the source.
This is not to say that other forms of therapy cannot be used alongside of the chiropractic adjustment. In fact, some situations depend on them for a swift recovery. But what I see in the majority of cases, as well as having experienced it personally (and I’m sure my 66,769 U.S. chiropractic colleagues would agree), is that the chiropractic adjustment is foundational in addressing the “just-a-muscle syndrome.”
So the next time you tweak your back, remind yourself, as you grasp for the phone to call your local chiropractor, that it probably is not “just a muscle.” Instead, watch your chiropractor do a double take when you tell him you think it is “just a Vertebral Subluxation Complex.”