Sustained Positions & Its Influence on Back Pain & Sports Performance

The key point of this article is similar to one of our previous articles “Work Position and How it Influences Pain”. One of the most effective ways to reduce the cause of positional back pain is to change position often! There are a variety of physiological factors at play when you hold the same position for a long period of time, all of which affect the muscles and how they function.

Physiological Changes in Muscle From Sustained Postures

I want to use the shoulder as an example for this topic. When you sit, work, garden, or enjoy your morning coffee with rounded shoulders, the front muscles which pull the shoulders forward are tightened and the back muscles (which typically pull the shoulders back) are now in a relaxed position. If you work chronically in this position the muscles will adapt to their most visited/stressed state. This is known as the Creep-Relaxation Phenomenon. Over time the muscles will shorten or lengthen according to the positional stress that is being put on them. Some of this phenomenon will take place within a few minutes, most takes place within the first 6-8 hours of a sustained position, and some will continue at a slow rate for months. So why is this important?

Why Creep-Relaxation Phenomenon is Important

The main reason to care about this phenomenon is hysteresis.
Hysteresis: “insert confusing physics definition here”. What it means for you: a muscle having a loss of energy and a delay in return to its original form. Picture the back muscles of the shoulder (as described above) as a rubber band. If you hold a rubber band on a stretch for a long period of time (much like sitting with rounded shoulders) eventually the rubber band will lose its elasticity. When the tension you have on the rubber band is released, the rubber band will struggle to return to its original flexible and springy state. This inability to return to its resting state and loss in energy will cause fatigue and micro failures which lead to repetitive stress injuries.

Along with hysteresis comes fatigue and repetitive stress to your muscles. Repetitive microtrauma and sustained posture are the most common forms of injury seen in chiropractic offices. This is why educating you is the top priority on our list!

Sports Performance and Hysteresis

Three important concepts here: 1) the ligaments and tendons are a little more stretched than optimal, 2) tissues have a loss of energy which decreases the ability to shock absorb, and 3) even if the tissues do return to their original form, they’ll still have a decrease in energy.

The tendon and ligaments are more stretched than optimal:
Muscles are strongest in their resting state. By resting state I mean not too stretched and not too tightened. It is in the resting state where muscles can produce the most force and energy. In sports, this concept is key for optimizing performance for power and strength. If the muscles are a little more stretched in their natural resting state (as caused by hysteresis) the amount of power and strength that you produce during sport could be reduced.

Loss of energy in a lengthened state:
The loss of energy in the lengthened state decreases the muscle’s ability to shock absorb which increases the risk of injury. The loss of energy also decreases the amount of power and strength the muscles can produce for sports performance.

Loss of energy even after returning to “optimal resting state”:
Having a loss of energy in the muscles and tendons will decrease their ability to act as shock absorbers which increases the likelihood of injury.

person swimming on body of water

Injury Rate and Back Pain

Having repetitive or sustained end-range loading has been shown to cause fatigue and stress to the muscles and ligaments. Fatigue and repeated end range loading will create microtrauma which in return leads to injury. Often these microtraumas can lead to low back pain. After holding the same position for a long period of time, a lot of the spinal ligaments and supporting muscles will fall into the creep-relaxation cycle and may cause pain.

back view of a woman having a neck pain

SOLUTION

Taking frequent breaks or changing position often is one of the best ways to counteract the creep-relaxation phenomenon and hysteresis. It is recommended to change position every 20 minutes. I like to set a timer on my phone if I plan to work at a desk for long hours. Check out our post “Work Position and How it Influences Pain” for ways to change position and reduce this phenomenon at the workplace or desk.

Spending time to learn which muscles are tight and doing stretches to lengthen them is a good first step. After determining which are tight, then determine which are weak and make a plan to strengthen them. Working with a chiropractor, massage therapist, acupuncturist, or physical therapist to work on already tight muscles for lengthening could also help. Working with a sports chiropractor or physical therapist to learn exercises can be useful. Sports certified clinicians are a great way to improve performance and decrease the risks of injury in sports.

As always please reach out with any questions that you may have!

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