While running intervals on a cool 19 degree morning, something dawned on me. My left knee was hurting from some patellar tracking issues, but only on initial contact and toe off. I generally run with a midfoot strike. I began concentrating on my feet, lifted and spread my toes and voila! my knee pain instantly improved. Very cool, and that is why I am writing this.
Without getting bogged down in the mire of quad/hamstring facilitation patterns, lets look at what happened.
I contracted the long extensors of the toes: the extensor digitorum longus and the extensor hallicus longus; the short extensors of my toes: the extensor digitorum brevis, the extensor hallucis brevis: as well as the dorsal interossei, the peroneus longus, brevis and tertius were probably involved as well.
Do you note a central theme here? They are all extensors. So what, you say. Hmmm…
Lets think about this from a neurological perspective:
In the nervous system, we have 2 principles called convergence and divergence. Convergence is
when many neurons synapse on one (or a group of fewer) neuron(s). It takes information and “simplifies” it, making information processing easier or more streamlined. Divergence is the opposite, where one(or a few) neurons synapse on a larger group. It takes information and makes it more complicated, or offers it more options.
In the spinal cord, motor neurons are arranged in sections or “pools” as we like to call them in the gray matter of the cord. These pools receive afferent information and perform segmental processing (all the info coming in at that spinal cord segment) before the information travels up to higher centers (like the cerebellum and cortex). One of these pools fires the extensor muscles and another fires the flexor muscles..
If someone in the movie theater keeps kicking the back of our seat, after a while, you will say (or do) something to try and get them to stop. You have reached the threshold of your patience. Neurons also have a threshold for firing. If they don’t reach threshold, they don’t fire; to them it is black and white. Stimuli applied to the neuron either takes them closer to or farther from threshold. When a stimulus takes them closer to firing, we say they are “facilitating” the neuron. If it affects a “pool” of neurons, then that neuronal pool is facilitated. If that pool of neurons happens to fire extensor muscles, then that “extensor pool” is facilitated.
When I consciously fired my extensor muscles, two things happened: 1. Through divergence, I sent information from my brain (fewer neurons in the cortico spinal pathway) to the motor neuron pools of my extensor muscles (larger groups of motor neurons) facilitating them and bringing them closer to threshold for firing and 2. When my extensor muscles fired, they sent that information (via muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs, joint mechnoreceptors, etc) back to my cerebellum, brain stem and cortex (convergence) to monitor and modulate the response.
When I fired my extensor muscles, I facilitated ALL the neuronal pools of ALL the extensors of the foot and lower kinetic chain. This was enough to create balance between my flexors and extensors and normalize my knee mechanics. Now you know why we always talk about stimulating the origin and insertion of the extensors and bellies of the flexors while needling!
If you have followed me for any amount of time, you know that it is often “all about the extensors” and this post exemplifies that fact.
Next time you are running, or have a patient or client that is running, have a consciousness of your extensors. Think about lifting and spreading our toes, or consciously not clenching them. Attempt to dorsiflex your ankles and engage your glutes. It just may make your knees feel better!