Friday, December 30, 2011

Senses and Sensitivity

Have you ever picked up what you thought was a pitcher full of water (or other drink) and found out that it was actually almost empty? Instead of lifting the pitcher in a well-controlled manner, you may have catapulted it high into the air. You expected it to be heavier, and you automatically made adjustments in the force you used to lift the pitcher. Because you had incorrect information, you used too much force for the weight of the pitcher.

We get information from our basic five senses, but it is not as simple as: I smell, or I don't smell; I hear, or I don't hear; I feel things, or I don't feel things. In reality, there are many nuances to our senses that we might not even be aware of--unless we have a problem, for example, if certain smells give us a headache, particular sounds irritate us, or certain textures feel unpleasant. In addition, there are other less-talked-about "senses" that give us information about our world. For example, our vestibular sense helps us know where we are in space, and among other things helps us keep our balance. Our proprioceptive sense helps us perceive our muscle movement and body position.

So, what if we rarely had the correct information about the weight of an object or how much force we were exerting? We would be experiencing proprioceptive difficulties. This sense helps us to judge how much force to exert and how far to move our muscles. When we put a glass down on a table, we see visually how close we are to the table, but we also sense when we are close to and have touched the table. If our nervous system does not let us know that we have touched the table, we will continue to press down until we feel the table. If we have already reached the table, but our proprioceptive sense does not register that, we will continue to push down until we sense that we have reached the table.

Our proprioceptive sense helps us to know how much force to use, where to place our body, and gives us the ability to put our body where we want it, as fast or as slowly, and with as much control as we need for a given situation. If we have proprioceptive difficulties, these abilities can be greatly reduced.

If we are not receiving enough proprioceptive information, we might exert a lot of force in our movements:  we might stomp when we walk, press very hard down on the paper when we write, or bump and crash into things. Instead of sitting gently into a chair, we might drop into it. On the other hand, if we are receiving too much proprioceptive information, we might be extra cautious in our activities. We might not exert enough force to accomplish the task at hand. In either case our ability to grade our movement might also be affected. Instead of moving smoothly, we might move from low to medium to high with no speeds in between.

Applying this information to trigger point therapy...

1) If you are working your trigger points and you are one who has proprioceptive difficulties, it may be difficult to gauge how much force to use.

As you may have learned by now, when we work our trigger points, it is supposed to "hurt good." If we press too hard, our efforts might backfire and make things worse for a while. If we do not press hard enough, there will be no benefit.  Clair Davies suggested that it should be at about a 7 on a pain scale of 1-10.

When I first started trigger point therapy, I worked my trigger points so that they hurt at a 7. But over time, I found out that it was too hard. I was getting bruises and then I would have to wait until things healed up a bit before I could work those trigger points again. After much trial and error, I decided that I needed to be at about a 5 on a pain scale of 1-10. (As you might have guessed by now, I have proprioceptive difficulties.) I am probably exerting as much pressure as Clair Davies would to get a 7, but I am only registering a 5.

2) Taking this idea a step further, it is possible that many people with proprioceptive difficulties (at least those who are not receiving enough input) have a higher tolerance for pain.

Because they are not reacting as if they have a higher level of pain, they may not be taken seriously when they actually have intense pain.

I am one of those people. I would go to the doctor for some type of pain. Inevitably, the doctor would press here or there and ask if it hurt. Well, it hurt a little, but I hurt everywhere a little. Was it supposed to hurt more than the other places? In fact, sometimes, it actually felt better when they pressed on the spot. Or the doctor might ask me if the pain was like such-and-such, and I would hesitate and have to think about it. Because my reaction was not what they expected, they did not think I had much of a problem. I would leave no better off than I was when I came in. In fact, I was worse off because what I thought was my best possibility for help had just been nullified. I would not come in to the doctor unless I really thought I needed to come in, but I had just been treated as if I had overreacted. Now, I would wait even longer before I would go in again for something.

I have often heard people say, "Oh, you would know it if you were experiencing such-and-such type of pain." Well, I had migraines for many years before I knew they were migraines. While other women were staying home from church or school and offering each other cokes and pain relievers, I kept going, unwittingly making things worse. I did not have enough information.

Pain is exhausting. What if you are in pain, but you really aren't even aware of it? It may have become such a part of your existence that you have become resigned to it.

If we are aware of our proprioceptive difficulties, there are adjustments that we can make to the way we do things and to how much we expect of ourselves. (See the link below for more information.)

Add to that a regular routine of working our trigger points (with the appropriate pressure), and we can lessen our overall pain, be more physically active and hopefully get fewer trigger points. In other words, hopefully, we can reverse the vicious cycle of pain, immobility, trigger points, more pain....

3) If our movements are not smooth and gentle, but are more choppy and abrasive, chances are that we might injure our muscles as we bump into things, stomp our feet and even clench our jaw.

Clenching my jaw is a big one. I know that as soon as I get to sleep, my jaw will clench. This overworks several muscles, including the masseters, which contribute to headaches. I have noticed that if I work some trigger points before I go to bed, all of my muscles seem to be more relaxed, including my jaw.

I have noticed that when I work my trigger points that I feel like I have been oiled. My movements are more fluid and I feel like I have more control over my movement. I am more relaxed, and, I am actually a little more coordinated. (It's pretty motivating, actually.)

4) If we are not receiving enough input, we may overuse our muscles because we do not quit when they get tired.  

This is a big one for me. I also have a personality that likes closure, so between those two characteristics, I can really overdo it. Again, working the trigger points seems to give me more awareness. Instead of beating a dead dog to do things, which is how it usually felt for me--I already felt like my muscles had given all that they could give, even before I started an activity--I was starting out with, well, maybe not a peppy puppy, but at least I felt like I had energy and when I started to get tired, I could tell a difference.

Janet Travell, the doctor who pioneered the research on trigger point therapy, suggested that we mix up our activities during the day. It may be helpful to set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. It might also be good to post this statement somewhere that you will see it:

Pushing through to finish an activity is not worth being in pain for several hours or days.

It is hard to remember when we are deep in a project what happened the last time we decided to push through. In fact, we might just remember that we finished and may not have made the connection between the pushing through and the symptoms that followed perhaps a few hours later.

So, take a break. Your future self will thank you.

If you think that you or someone you know may have some proprioceptive issues, check out the link below.

If you are interested in learning more about sensory processing difficulties, this site has a good overview.  This link goes directly to a checklist, but there is a lot to explore on the site itself.

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