In the broadest terms, ‘Biomechanics’ is the study of how living things move. In Podiatry, Biomechanics is the study of how humans move with a specific interest in how we walk, run and stand. Everything in nature is beautiful, but nothing in nature is simple and the arguments about how we first came to find ourselves on two feet still rage on in universities across the world. But we do understand the how, even if we don’t know about the why? With this knowledge, when things go wrong we have various options to help us put things right.
When we perform any kind of movement, from climbing a mountain to clicking a mouse; what takes place is an intricate cascade of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves all working together to carry out our desires and impulses. Sometimes we are aware of this happening but when it comes to our feet and legs, most of the time we are not. Because of this we usually don’t realise when something is going wrong.
What can go wrong?
There are hundreds of different structures that are involved in even the most basic of movements. Getting up from a chair might seem simple, but it doesn’t take much for this to become quite a challenging task. If you have a painful knee or hip for example, your body has to adjust to avoid putting stress on the painful joint, which means everything has to change. Quite commonly, small adjustments like this become amplified as muscles which are used to working become weaker and other ones become stronger. Just like any system, even the slightest change causes ripples which, given enough time, can cause other problems to develop.
Walking and standing are not ‘automatic,’ they are things which we learn to do, even if we don’t remember doing it. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, it’s a complicated process which takes a lot of time and practice. But unlike a musical instrument, it’s very difficult to know when things are being done badly. We use our brain to tell our body to move from the chair to the door and we get up and go. But no two people will do this in exactly the same way. Some people will use their arms to help them up, some people will lean a long way forwards then use their back muscles to pull them-selves straight, some people will slide off of the chair and use their knees to ‘bounce’ forwards, some people will keep their feet flat on the floor, some people with stand up on their toes then put their heels down once they’ve got going… There is huge variety of physical options at our disposal, but we don’t choose which one to use and that is the problem.
Quite commonly, we don’t use the most efficient method to move and so problems ‘build up’ in areas which end up working too hard or not enough. Muscles which are overloaded can become strained or muscles which are underused can become weak or tight. In time, this causes a ‘drag’ on the system as a whole and ‘slow injuries’ can start to manifest. Because it is a system which is going wrong, pain or problems don’t necessarily occur around the problem area. An ankle which is working badly can, for example, cause one of the knees to hurt.
When we walk, run or stand, we use our entire body so we also sometimes find that an old injury that seems to have healed well can cause problems to build up in other areas. If, for example, you have a shoulder injury it is difficult to properly swing your arms whilst walking. This means that your back and leg muscles have to adjust the way they work. If not ‘put right’ after the shoulder has healed this process can continue to happen but at the same time as the arm starts to swing again. A ‘clash’ will occur within the system and cause a problem in any number of places.
Everything happens for a reason, but when it comes to body pains those reasons can be difficult to work out unless you have a definite starting point. If you suffer a broken bone in your foot, for example, it’s easy to know where to start looking if it continues to be painful after the break has healed but often it’s not that simple. When you have an unexplained pain, depending on where it is and how long it’s been there, some obvious things can be ruled out quickly; which is why doctors take X-rays and carry out blood tests to look for disease or pathologies in the painful area. When these come back as negative it can be quite challenging to know where to go next. This is usually the point when Podiatric Biomechanics is so useful because we can assess how you do things and how you’ve done then for some time and work out if the pain might be part of a ‘system failure.’ In the modern worlds, our musculoskeletal system is more at risk of failure than you might think.
Modern problems in a modern world.
In the modern world, the way in which we use our body is very different from how we would have used it just a few decades ago. Public transport, affordable cars, living and working in cities are all wonderful things, but they all tend to add to one thing; we don’t walk enough. This might sound fairly harmless, but it is a serious problem.
The human body only tend to maintain the level of strength and fitness it requires on a day to day level, which is why athletes have to train carefully and regularly to stay at their best. If you only walk from your house to the bus-stop or station and then to work at the other end; most people won’t average much more than a five to ten minute walk. It doesn’t really matter now many times you do this as the muscles of your body need to warm up before they can gain fitness. It takes about ten minutes of brisk walking for this to happen so for most people, by the time your body is about ready to go, you stop and rest. Regular short walks and ‘steps-per-day’ are good methods of maintaining your cario-vascular health and help to control weight gain, but they do little to improve or maintain the fitness of your legs or feet.
We should all be capable of walking 15-20 miles suffering only mild fatigue towards the end, but how many of us really could? Our ancestors are thought to have able to run huge distances over hours and hours without needing to stop. Our bodies have not changed all that much since then, but our lifestyle is entirely different. It is inevitable that some part of our body will pay the price, but there are things that can be done to help.
The Biomechanics Specialist is Chris Hadaway.
Sports Podiatry and Biomechanics
Why do even very fit feet hurt?
As discussed in Biomechanics Explained there are a variety of ways in which our body can achieve what our brain asks of it. Unfortunately, we don’t always do things in the best possible way as far as our anatomy is concerned and sometimes this can result in injury and pain. Even if you keep your body very fit, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that your muscles and bones are working at optimum efficiency.
Injuries, quick and slow.
There are lots of different injuries that sporting people can suffer from, some of them are obvious, like a twisted ankle, but others can be much more subtle and difficult to spot. For example; it is very common for people to under use the muscles inside their feet (wearing shoes and walking on flat surfaces does little to increase or maintain foot strength) but this doesn’t hurt during day-to-day activities. If you start a new sport you suddenly require these muscles to work and they can’t cope so they strain, this is a very common reason that sporting feet burn or ache in certain places. Furthermore, we find that this principle can be applied pretty much anywhere in the body and we often find that back ground pains or dull aches can be traced back over quite a long time period. Generally, pain is the last thing that happens; it’s the end of a process that may have been going on for ages.
Quick injuries such as twists, sprains and strains are usually the result of bad luck, a slip, stumble or fall. The ability of the body to properly heal following an injury also depends on the way in which that body is working before the injury happened. If, for example, you had been using your ankle poorly for years and years, even if you were unaware of the problem, if that ankle were injured it would be very difficult for it to heal properly. This is why injury sites can become weak areas; because they always were only now there is scar tissue and damage to make matters worse.
A huge number of common sporting pains and problems can be investigated in these terms. Problems such as:
- Shin splints
- Leg pain
- Back pain
- Sore ankles
- Weak ankles
- Painful Feet
- Runners Bunions
- Hard skin
- Knee pains
Pains like these have to start somewhere and even if there was seemingly obvious beginning, if it still hurts they be a longer story than you realise.
Happily, our biomechanics specialist at the Mackenzie Practice is highly experienced in this field and can both assess and advise you on what the best course of action is.
My coach thinks I might need Orthotics.
How can Orthotics enhance my natural ability?
Our body is only ever as good as the modern world and our lifestyle allows it to be. Very few people are perfect in the anatomical sense and small defects in structure and ability are very common. For most of us, if we’re honest, we don’t do enough exercise for any of these defects to ever bother us. Most of us never even know they’re there. When we get fitter, however, little things can become amplified and we encounter limits to our physicality that simply don’t make sense.
Think in terms of cars; if you have a twenty-year-old, unkempt, diesel hatch-back that struggles up hills but none-the-less gets you where you want to go; you can do pretty much whatever you want to the engine, tyres and tracking, it’s still going to splutter and struggle but it will get there in the end. Now think of a top-spec, hugely expensive Italian sports car; in this case even the slightest change to the slightest thing requires a laptop and a technician because the car is a balance of high performance systems that all interact and affect each-other.
In the modern world, some of us are hatch-backs and some of us are sports cars. The fitter you become the more important little defects in position and power become. If these things are addressed, limiting factors are removed and you can progress towards your true potential.