Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
December 1993


Much has been written about the effects of stress on the body, including the joy of it, but there is one source of stress that would appear so far to have been, if not overlooked, at least largely ignored, and that is structural stress. This is a condition that the family physician can easily spot in physical examinations and, where needed, explain both its cause and the importance of its cure.

Previously, the body was compared to something mechanical, the parts of which needed to be kept in good working condition for optimum performance. However, the body is also a free standing structure and therefore subject to the same requirements for stability as a building: a level foundation, true vertical alignment of the supporting walls and sufficient strength in the framework to support the mass weight of the building. The foundation of the body is the pelvis, and the skeletal bones are its “framework.”

Achieving stability in the body is a more complicated task than that of putting up a building, especially since we’re not welded together but made up of moveable parts. First, since we come ready-made, we don’t have the opportunity to start from the ground up. And though we all have essentially the same structural form, it comes in varying proportions of bone and muscle length and consistency of connective tissue, which, with some important exceptions, we can do little to change. Add to this years of growth with no blueprint to point us in the right direction, combine it with misuse and lack of use, and most of us arrive at our grown stature with some degree of structural stress well embedded.

The cause of this stress is revealed in the skeletal set of the body and can clearly be seen in X-rays: exaggerated curves throughout the spinal column and a pelvis that is not properly aligned. What the curves indicate, in fact, is a lack of relevant muscle use to support body weight. For though, in a sense, the bone structure is what holds the body up, it is muscles that keep the bones aligned and which support them, along with the rest of the body mass, against the pull of gravity.

The skeletal muscles are the muscles that support body weight, but they’re difficult to strengthen because we don’t normally “feel” them. It’s only through doing certain exercises repeatedly and in a specific way that they’re brought into awareness. Once the connection is made, they can then be strengthened and put to the use for which they’re intended.

It’s perhaps worth repeating something that was said in an earlier column: that releasing tension and developing looseness and flexibility must come first. Without flexibility, there is so much resistance to overcome from the established set of the body that it may be impossible to get beneath the surface layers and locate the support muscles. Even when “found,” the effort to use them will require a great deal more energy than when the body has been loosened – a very good reason for emphasizing flexibility training in the young.

While in normal circumstances the cause of structural stress results from nothing more than poor posture, its effects are manifold. Not only does it adversely affect appearance, but physical comfort, health and the safe use of the body are also seriously undermined. Aches and pains appear as counterparts to cracks in walls; muscles, joints, blood vessels and organs all suffer from the burden of pressure, causing physiological ailments; and susceptibility to injury is increased, with tendons and ligaments, instead of the bone structure, absorbing weight. All of this can only detract from the benefits to be had through active exercise, however simple or moderated it might be. For it stands to reason that a body that is freed of tension – which is trapped energy – will have more energy available for both physical and physiological use.

There is nothing particularly new here; bodywork practitioners in all disciplines have long heralded the cause of posture. But though few people would deny that improvement is needed in this area, it has drawn the least amount of interest of any present-day self-improvement program. It can only be assumed that the spectre of later-year decrepitude has not been sufficiently impressed on public consciousness. Yet the truth of it is, that whether it results merely as a gradual stiffening and inability to move as easily as before, or reaches full-blown incapacitation in a stooped-over, shuffling, rigid body, the likes of which populate our nursing homes, the failure to deal with structural stress places a price on our lives and wellbeing that is far too high.

Next time, we’ll re-examine the pelvic tilt and show that straightening the pelvis – instead of “tilting” it – is not only a more permanent way to relieve lower back strain, but is also the foundation on which correct posture depends.