The Power of Proper Structure
I remember being in my third year class at the Canadian Academy of Osteopathy. The principle of my school, an osteopath with 10 plus years of experience, always brought in people who needed help outside the school to demonstrate to students how mechanics work and what osteopathy can do for people. The proof was always rolled before our eyes. In this particular case, there were two athletes training for the Olympics in bobsledding who he had met at a local gym. As amateur athletes, they had little money and little time to spend on finding solutions to their problems. They were forced to push on despite the injuries, as taking time off could signal the end of their Olympic dreams. Both former football players, many injuries had piled up over the years, never fully receiving the treatment needed to recover properly. To make a long story short, our principal treated them osteopathically. By the end of the session they were both feeling much looser and their superior recovery skills started to work immediately. What happened over the next few days helped me understand the importance of mechanics. At the end of the week, they both returned to the school for a follow up treatment. They were in a heavy lifting phase of the year, and often trained 2 times a day. What they had noted the day after the treatment upon returning to the gym, was not only that they had felt more energetic and recovered than they had in a long time, but they had both set personal bests in their max squats, with ease!
What this showed me was the importance of mechanics in our every day work. Muscles are like bands, and act regardless of what position they are in. Our joints are the gears that connect the bands and send signals to our brain so that our muscles can react accordingly. However, the moment our bones moves away from neutral, the more tension is placed on our muscles, and the less they are able to respond to maximum levels of force appropriately. The more out of line we are, the more we rely on our muscles to move us, the more likely it is for problems to happen. An example of this is the band-aid solution for back problems, the concept of “strengthening your core”, or to make your muscles stronger to make up for the lack of proper movement in the back. The more aligned our joints and bones, the easier it is for our muscles to move them, the better we can circulate blood and the better our recovery.
What osteopathy does differently than anything else is that it works from the global perspective. Bruce Lee, one of the most well known martial artists of his time, used to say his strongest punches were thrown from his big toe. Now imagine how if his ankle was off, how that would affect his big toe, and how much power he would lose in his punch. The first principle of osteopathy is that the whole body is connected, therefore every joint is as important as the next. A shoulder problem is not always a problem with the shoulder, similarly a low back problem doesn’t always originate in the low back. By using this approach, we are able to free up areas that were restricted in motion, aligning joints and making sure your muscles are acting appropriately to any movement you need to do.
So when is the best time to see an osteopath as an athlete?
My favorite time to treat athletes is immediately after the season, or before/during the pre-season phase. It is then when we can make the best structural changes, not having to dance around heavy trainings, games and the large amounts of force they put on the body. Essentially what I am doing is destabilizing the body so that when training becomes harder as we prepare for the season, we are beginning from a stronger structural place.
During the season, or peak phases, the job becomes a bit less beneficial. As often we are trying to improve circulation to the most injured of the body’s tissues, trying to maximize recovery without making as dramatic of a structural change. Getting through the wears and tears of the season often requires the body to be as stable as it can be, even if that is from a weakened structural position. Too much instability created by a heavy mechanical treatment, the increasing likelihood of injury when the body meets a strong force, acting from a new position.
Post-serious injury is often another time osteopathy may help. Although I tend to defer to physiotherapists and athletic therapists post-surgery, as the damaged tissues often need their strength and stability restored before we can start working on mechanics at the joint level.
After seeing many athletes, both amateur and professional, walk in and out of the Canadian Academy of Osteopathy, it was clear to me early on what is often missed out on in more conventional therapies for athletes. I start to wonder how many injuries (especially in the hamstrings) I may have avoided had my hips and low back been in strong working order. My hope for the future is that this form of therapy can begin to grow in athletics, for the athlete’s sake. It is one thing to feel an improvement and another thing to attain improvement, to have proof of our full recovery. By working from a structurally sound skeleton, our muscles can better push us towards becoming stronger, faster, and a being able to recover better, and the better the results we can attain. Regardless of whether or not we consider ourselves an athlete.