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The Anatomical Machine

“Body Mechanic” is a creative, concise, and common title many massage therapists give themselves. And with good reason. The body is, after all, a complex machine, which means we are technically mechanics. But what is a machine really? Let’s look at one of the most familiar ones around and take it apart. (Theoretically, not literally. Because then this article would be in a different publication.)

Since its launch in 1886, the automobile has seen thousands of versions and has evolved to become increasingly sleek and luxurious. But, at its basic foundation, a car is considered a compound, or complex, machine made up of a collection of simple machines that work together. Levers, pulleys, screws, inclined planes, wedges, wheels, and axles all come together to make the motor run.


The human body is like a car. We have levers and pulleys (joints and muscles); wedges and inclined planes (the diaphragm and the pelvis); wheels and axles (the rotator cuff and obliques); and some of us even have screws. We all have an ignition, and once that motor is running, the goal is to keep it running smoothly.

In human anatomy, breakdowns can happen on many levels, in varying degrees, with a plethora of results, and we know what happens when a part breaks down—the whole is compromised. We see this every day in our practice. A sprain can cause a compensation pattern. Scar tissue can cause ischemia. And anxiety can cause digestive dysfunctions, among other issues.


Let’s take a closer look at what happens when tension is the catalyst. The correlation is easily made between a tight muscle and its resulting strain or trigger point. If a part is overworked, that part can break down. But what is happening when one component is overworked and another component breaks down?

This phenomenon is felt most overtly in the posterior lower leg. Tight hamstrings are a common issue among both men and women (but definitely more in men). With the grip these muscles have on the back of the leg, the gastrocnemius and soleus often have to overcompensate to create balance. For example, if a runner’s hamstrings are not allowing for full extension of the knee, the feet and ankles will often adjust to create more movement in order to maintain a certain stride.

The limitation on the knee will also impede the ability of the hamstrings to create speed as the runner pushes forward. This, in turn, calls for more concentrated contractions of the calf muscles, resulting in a painful cramp or spasm.

The same is true for other regions of the body. A tight bicep can require more of the deltoids, tight latissimus dorsi can exhaust the teres major and minor, and a tight psoas can wreak all sorts of havoc. For both the pectoralis major and minor, the link is to the neck and shoulders. The tension that lives there is infamous. If the trapezius and levator scapulae are chronically tight—as they often are these days with most people—responsibility falls forward.

Chronic elevation of the shoulders shifts the skeleton into a position that pulls the insertion of the pectoralis major up superiorly. Simultaneously, rounded shoulders frequently coincide with the stress that creates this tension. In response, the origin of the pectoralis on to the clavicle, sternum, and ribs becomes cemented and constricted. As an occasional position, this won’t typically create issues. But high demands for long periods of time can do all sorts of damage.


Taxing the body is a lot like redlining a car. On a car’s tachometer (the gauge that measures revolutions per minute, or RPMs) the numbers at the high end of the gauge are red. Pushing your car into the red— or redlining—for occasional brief moments won’t cause much harm. But hanging out with the pedal to the metal will likely cause damage to the valve train and transmission. The body is the same.

While the pectoralis muscles may not resemble a valve train, they will begin to seize up with heightened demand. The difference is that they won’t cramp like the calf will. The spasm will happen on a much more focused area. Smaller segments of the muscle fibers will seize up and grip the area, resulting in—you guessed it—a trigger point. And trigger points in the pecs are not always clear. They can be difficult to pinpoint, refer pain in confusing ways, and can culminate to feel like other issues in the shoulder, down the arm, or (in more severe cases) deep in the chest to mimic a heart attack.

We are complicated machines with a host of parts that all rely on each other to work properly, so keep an eye on the chain of tension. Understanding the simple machines that make up our complex body engine is important, and recognizing the role they play with each other is crucial. Even if you are not working with clients yet, awareness around your own machine will make you a phenomenal mechanic.


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