Understanding Joint pain Pt 1.: Making Connections

September 12th, 2016




“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.”

― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief




This week we investigate at an issue many can relate to or have experienced: pain, injury, and dysfunction in the joints of the body. Next week, in part two, we will look at the interplay between the joints, hidden causes of inflammation and the rest of the body-mind. After all, this is the Conscious Health blog. But first, let us connect the dots – or at least joints – to the rest of the body.



Making connections


In the energy model of traditional Chinese medicine (among others), the joints and the connective tissue supporting them is under control of the Wood element (for an in depth look at the Wood element click here). As in nature, the growing, green grasses, vines and roots hold the earth together to keep it in place.


tree roots


In the body, the Earth element (click here for more) controls the ‘tone of the flesh’ – that is, all the soft tissue structures like muscle, fat, organs and even the integrity of the blood vessel walls. The connective tissue functions as the roots and vines that give many of these structures their correct tone and bind them to the hard structures of the bones and joints in particular.



Hard and soft options


When this interplay does not work as it should we lack muscle tone, strength and flexibility. Instead we can build up compensatory tension in places that need to be relaxed while lacking tone and strength in places that need to support the body.


Symptoms like overly tight neck and shoulders but poor abdominal tone and core stability are common. Add a sedentary job with lots of internalised stress and little or no physical outlets like exercise, stretching or even emotional expression and one can find oneself a prisoner in a stress hormone bloated, ‘stiff-soft’ body with low energy and vitality.




As one client memorably summed up his health: “I’m soft and hard – but in all the wrong places!”



Getting the balance right


The interplay between muscles, connective tissue and the joints is vital for the healthy functioning of all three. For example, many a joint problem can be simply a matter of poor muscle tone and strength. Exercises to build up these can often be enough to eliminate the symptoms and restore proper functioning.


On other occasions, overly tight muscles can be the cause. Exercises like stretching, yoga and joint mobility will be of profound benefit to those suffering with these issues. Regular stretching comes naturally to babies, small children and animals but adults often seem to forget it about and suffer the consequences in reduced function and flexibility.





Slightly more complex is when antagonistic (opposing) muscle groups have different levels of tension or tone. A visit to an experienced body worker or kinesiologist may be needed to test which muscles are at fault and have them ’reprogrammed’ at a neuromuscular level to play nice with each other again.


The take home message at this level of dysfunction is that we have to use our body. Many modern lifestyles involve an over stimulation of the nervous system combined with very little physical activity. I usually refer to these as ‘brain on a stick’ professions where people are chained to a computer and/or mobile devices dealing with high levels of stress but with very little physical outlets for it.  


Another common pattern, particularly among the middle-aged is that they seem to have forgotten to do any regular exercise since their teens and twenties and are genuinely shocked when they develop problems later in life. “My body is letting me down.” is a common complaint when it is really the other way around. The scenario get worse if even their youth was spent in overeating and lack of exercise. The chances of turning that around in middle age are much lower.





Diet, muscle tone and the joints


Now that we know that muscle tone plays an important role in healthy joint function we need to look at the contributing factors to that. The role of exercise we have already touched upon so let us look at an equally important factor: diet.


“You are what you eat.” goes the well known saying and it is literally true in the case of our flesh. The digestive organs take the fruits of the earth (food) and transform it into what becomes and maintains our physical form. Unsurprisingly to those who have read/listened this far, this process is under control of the aforementioned Earth element.


Junk food with lots of trans-fats, empty calories in the form of white sugar and sweeteners like maltose, dextrose, sucrose and so on will eventually create a ‘junk’ body. These new forms of fat (as a result of modern food processing techniques) cannot be metabolised by the body and are ‘dumped’ in the form of fat.


Needless to say, the tone of all this new and undesirable flesh is not conducive to healthy functioning. In addition, the weight gain that results puts additional pressure on overburdened joints under gravity and hastens degenerative conditions like arthrosis (a.k.a. osteoarthritis). Weight bearing joints like the vertebrae of the spine, hips, knees and ankles are particularly susceptible.




Overwork and injury


Now we come to the opposite end of the spectrum. As with most things in life there is a fine line between normal use, overuse and abuse. Many joint problems fall into the latter two categories. Old sports injuries and accidents often come back to haunt us later in life.


One reason for this is that bone tries to protect itself from trauma by laying down calcium deposits. While this is an appropriate response to breaks and fractures it is counterproductive in the joints. Problems like bone spurs and waste material in the joint result in local inflammation and pain. In these cases, minor surgery to clean the joint surfaces of this unwanted debris is the only option. In yet more extreme cases the joint itself needs to be replaced.





Professional athletes can often value performance over their own health. Taking painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications to enable them to continue when they really need to listen to the signals from their body can result in long term problems way after their career is over. Contact sports in particular are notorious for abuse of the body and the use of symptom dampening medication. Not only are long term joint problems likely but an addiction to pain medicines can become an unwelcome part of the post career package as well.



A burning issue


While a burning joint may sound like the subject for a blog about recreational drug abuse it is a very real issue for joint pain sufferers. The key factor here is cortisol. Cortisol wears many hats in the body. It is both a hormone and neurotransmitter, a steroid and also functions as an anti-inflammatory.


Its close cousin, cortisone, is synthesised as a medical drug and injected into inflamed joints or used in creams for sore joints, muscles and inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis. It is also used in cases of organ transplants to dampen an autoimmune response.




Cortisol is known to most of us however as a stress hormone. Chronic stress and even eventual ‘burnout’ states mean that we can eventually lose our ability to create enough cortisol to take away inflammation in the body. At this point we begin to reach the interface of our psycho-physical selves. That is, joint pain is not a purely physical issue nor does it have only physical causes.


This looks like a job for another Conscious Health blog that, by yet another amazing coincidence, will be the subject of part two in this short series on joint pain where we will look at mysterious interface between energy, consciousness and health. Well, we would, wouldn’t we…




Till another Monday extends its arthritic middle finger joint to the week stretching out before it



© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com

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