Bodies need balanced strength and flexibility to endure the work

Back in college, I worked at a chiropractic clinic as a rehabilitation specialist for two years. During this time I learned how to care for people with chronic musculoskeletal pain. All the textbook learning in the world could not have prepared me for this role, and I am eternally grateful for this real-world experience.

In my role in the chiropractic practice, I helped patients warm up with moist heat and a traction bed for their adjustment. This process increases blood flow to the back and reduces tension in the muscles around the spine.

I always let patients relax during this time, as the first few minutes in a chiropractic office can be anxiety-inducing – especially when a person is in pain.

After the warm-up, I spent a few minutes helping the patients prepare for their adjustment. I would help them position themselves on the table and ask them about their day.

On a given day, a man felt well enough to share his work habits and how he felt they were contributing to his musculoskeletal pain.

The man explained that he works in a tire factory and his job was to lift a tire off the ground and place it on a rack about 4 feet high. The frame was positioned on the other side of his body. He heaved and twisted while mounting tires for eight hours each day.

He said he was grateful for his employment and that he had done this work for almost two years.

The man couldn’t have been a day older than 30, and he was strong. His arms, legs, and core muscles had developed due to the physical nature of his work. But he had debilitating back pain, mainly in the chest area (between the shoulder blades).

During his fitting, the chiropractor asked the man if I could accompany him while he explained the diagnosis. The man agreed and the chiropractor explained the medical reasons the man was in pain. It boiled down to a muscular imbalance created by repetitive twisting while lifting.

One side of his body was well developed while the other side lagged behind. To compound the imbalance, the man had very poor mobility and his muscles, while strong, were incredibly tight.

We worked with him three times a week for the next three months. His pain subsided and he began lifting tires alternately throughout his workday.

A few months later, he walked into the office looking like a completely different person. His posture had improved, he had a smile on his face and his gait was what you would expect from a 30-year-old.

“You saved my life,” he said. He went on to explain how his back pain reached a point where he became depressed and this affected his relationships with his family. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but as the pain subsided, his relationships improved.

He was also promoted at the factory and was able to change his previous job to involve less repetitive lifting and turning.

This interaction profoundly influenced me and is one of the reasons I chose my career path. In his case, we focused more on flexibility and correcting muscular imbalances than making his muscles stronger – and it changed his life.

This week’s exercise is one of the flexibility exercises I introduced him to and it’s a great way to maintain bilateral flexibility in the lower body.

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1. Position yourself barefoot on your left knee with your left foot dorsiflexed (toe up) and your toes flexed up off the floor.

2. Your right foot should be on the floor in front of you, right knee at a 90 degree angle.

3. From here, slowly push your body forward so your right knee travels over the toes of your right foot.

4. Hold this position briefly, then slowly return to the start.

5. Repeat for 12 reps, then switch legs and repeat.

This simple yet effective stretch is a great way to identify and address muscular imbalances as you’ll feel the difference in muscle tension from side to side.

If one side is tighter, you should spend more time on it. This makes it possible to correct the differences in flexibility and (hopefully) reduce pain and dysfunction. Enjoy!

Matt Parrott, director of business development and population health solutions at Quest Diagnostics, began this column in Little Rock 20 years ago. He holds a PhD in Education (Exercise Science), a Masters in Kinesiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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