Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Do you wear orthotics, use knee, ankle or back braces as a coping strategy for chronic pain or injury? If you do, it may be worth contemplating if rigidity really is helping your body recover or perform it's best!
'Rigidity is the enemy of all biology.'
The above quote by Michol Dalcourt sums up our perspective on locking up joints or immobilising an injured area. Many people use these devices long term, or reach for a 'supportive brace' at the first hint of a niggling injury. How many people do you know who wear a knee brace every time they play sport? If it was helping them heal, it wouldn't be needed long term!
When you lock an area up, something else must work harder
Our body is an interdependent tensegrity structure, meaning all parts connect and work with each other. In other words movement is a joint effort. When one part of our body becomes injured or compromised, the remainder of the system makes important adjustments to help compensate. When you take away the ability of one part to move, something else ALWAYS has to pick up the slack.
When it comes to treatment of injury, and both acute or chronic pain unfortunately many people still believe that the best approach is to RICE (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) and immobilize the sore area. While keeping an injured part from being further damaged with excessive or intense movement is a good idea, locking the area up to create a rigid joint is not! (read more here about a more progressive approach to injury management here.)
Our body has highly intelligent, innate, sensory systems that help us navigate pain and injury, and will quickly alert us if we have moved too much for our pain threshold. When we lock up a joint with a brace, or a 'support' we create less movement which delays healing and almost always leads to compensation elsewhere. Movement is essential for recovery in that it promotes circulation, removal of waste products, and healthy connective tissue to say the very least.
A vicious cycle of immobility
The longer we stay immobile, or locked up, the more damaged the connective tissue will become, because it thrives from healthy, variable movement. When we do not move often and intelligently train our fascial system, the web of connective tissue becomes dehydrated and less elastic, more rigid and damaged, making it even harder for the injured area to communicate and transfer force to neighboring tissue. The longer you keep an area still, the more stiffening occurs, and you will need to work even harder to regain mobility. The body was designed to move with rhythm in a beautiful symphony with the entire system. Absorbing and transferring load is a shared experience.
If you lock up your ankle joint by choice with a brace, or by lack of quality movement, the knees, hips and lower back have to work harder to absorb more of the force that the ankles should have shared initially. The same is true for supportive shoes that lock the arch, ankle/knee/back braces etc.
If you have ever worn one of these devices you will know that they can provide a sense of comfort and support. Despite this, compressing and locking up a painful area comes at a cost, and doesn't address the root cause of why the pain or chronic injury has occurred. For example knee pain may be soothed temporarily with a brace, but why is the knee in pain? Is there a lack of movement efficiency in the joint or connective tissue above or below forcing the knee to work harder than it was designed to? A back brace is often used to support disc injuries and the core, but it doesn't fix the problem of why the disc spine alignment is off, or why the hips are not moving well enough, forcing the back to suffer more wear and tear.
Locking up the painful area to rest it and hope it stops hurting, is a band-aid approach that won't solve the problem. While it might help increase awareness and provide feedback about how you are using that part, it won't help reduce the tension on that area. When it comes to chronic niggles and pain, it's imperative to learn how to utilise the sore area better, and investigate why it's suffering in the first place. It's very rarely occurring from a problem at the site of pain, but often because another area is locked up and not moving enough, causing excessive movement and wear and tear at the site of pain. In the famous words of Ida Rolf...
'Where you think it is, it ain't!'