A Sticky Situation (or, We Just Weren't Built for These Times, part two)

Wed, Apr 25, 2018

In my last essay, I posited that evolution shaped the human body and mind so that we are beautifully adapted to the world of 5000 years ago, but perhaps poorly suited to the world of today. (It may be useful to read the first two paragraphs of that essay, to flesh out the premise with a few specifics.) Here I’d like to take that idea up again from a different angle. In particular, consider that back then the average human lifespan was less than 30 years. Medical technology didn’t yet exist. People had already discovered the medicinal properties of various plants, but anything more severe than a very minor injury or illness would have been life-threatening.

The best response evolution engineered for us to counter those threats was, essentially, stickiness. Our bodies produce a range of sticky reactions to physical trauma. When we’re invaded by disease-causing pathogens, our mucus membranes kick into overdrive to produce the sticky stuff that might trap those pathogens and help us expel them via sneezes and coughs. When our skin is cut, platelets rush to the injury site and adhere to each other, to begin the clotting process that closes a wound. When our internal tissues suffer damage – a torn muscle, say, or a sprained joint – we have an inflammation response which causes the injured area to swell almost immediately, thereby immobilizing the area to prevent further damage while the tissues repair themselves.

5000 years ago, stickiness was our best defense against physical trauma. Now, of course, we have an astonishing array of more sophisticated methods available to us, such that conditions which would have been fatal even a few generations ago can now be repaired and recovered from. Yet our bodies still do their sticky best to help us – and because of that, over the course of our lives we accumulate scar tissue in every spot that’s ever gotten hurt.

For most people under the age of 30, this isn’t too much of a problem. The younger we are, the more elasticity we have in our tissues, so we heal pretty quickly and can easily compensate for the minor ways that scar tissue might restrict our movements. Yet now the average human lifespan is more than 70 years. As we age, we keep accumulating scar tissue so the restrictions multiply, and meanwhile we lose the elasticity that eases movement. This is why, especially in older adults, one major injury can so often lead to another, and another.

Once it forms, scar tissue tends to remain in place until something comes along to break it up. This is frequently how fascial restrictions originate. Healthy tissues have some give to them, but scar tissue is comparatively rigid. And the thing about restrictions like this is that they don’t just stay where they are initially needed, but will over time extend outward from that site in all directions, the way cracks spread through a windshield. Neighboring tissues get caught up in the web. Eventually neighboring structures can get bound together, so that the muscles can’t function effectively and the joints lose their range of motion. Do you know a single older adult whose body doesn’t have some regular aches and pains? I don’t. I’m 43, and I have a fair few of them myself.

5000 years ago, our bodies’ stickiness was a literal life-saver, and most people didn’t live long enough for it to become problematic. Yet with the 70-or-more years that most of us live today, over time that stickiness is not our friend.

The good news, at least, is that bodywork is our friend. Manual therapies like massage and myofascial release can be terrifically effective at breaking up scar tissue, freeing fascial restrictions, and restoring full range of movement – even to areas that have been stuck for decades. Generally speaking, a soft tissue problem that’s been plaguing you for years isn’t going to get resolved in one session, but it will get better, and most people report significant and lasting improvement after a few months of regular treatment. And the earlier you address a problem, the quicker it’s likely to heal, and the less it’s going to bother you over the years that follow.