Spasm, Splinting, and Change Dynamics: Injury, Immobilisation & Aggravation

Spasm & Splinting

So, I threw my back out…
Again…
I planted somewhere over a million trees in an evidently overlengthy treeplanting career, once upon a time rowed a dory down the coast of BC, and, for a time, took great pleasure in something called ‘Martial Dance’ which involved improvisationally and consensually flinging one another all over the place with great grace, so, my back has done its fair share and periodically lets me know it’s had enough.

fight flightThe cause is pretty much always a combination of heavy object(s), reaching, twisting and stress; in this case an innocent enough maneuvering of an amp into my ‘95 Honda (aka ‘The Blue Flame’).  Not uncommonly, having set one of my lower vertebra adrift, I exacerbate it by doing some other activity; in this case Lebron Jamesing with my ten year old who is on that delicious cusp of finally thoroughly whooping his dad at a game that he’s far more gifted at.  Baddaboom baddabay and I’m calling the game a little short and gentling home to lay my sorry ass flat on its back with a huge sigh of relief.

 ‘Herniated disc’ = one wrong move = shooting nerve pain + persistent exhaustion aching through glutes, hips, all through lower back, not to mention, in my case, a permanent slightly twisted forward tilt.  Like I said, I’ve been here a few times before and I know know that, despite an urgent desire to do something, anything to fix it as soon as possible – massage, twist, do yoga, stretch – the best thing to do at first is almost nothing except, as often as possible, lie down and give it some relief.

 Fact is, the pain is there for a reason.
Human physiology is a marvel.
Pain is a marvel – if an unwelcome one – and has a most compelling story to tell.  Pain’s great and powerful cut through all the crap nervous system megaphone announcement is “STOP”.   Stop doing whatever you’re doing that’s damaging some part of you.  In the case of back trauma it’s a whole lot of ‘STOP MOVING’ because a very high percentage of typical movements mobilise your lower back and/or pelvis.  Mobilising your lower back scrapes your herniated disc across the highway of nerves running just beside your vertebra and, nerves being what they are, you get an electric shock wave of shooting pain jolting you into immobility.

Mobility causes damage and excruciating pain, and excruciating pain is paralysing and debilitating, so the autonomic nervous system pulls a brilliant trick to immobilise the traumatised area.  It puts the muscles directly around the injury into spasm, which makes them as hard and unyielding as a piece of wood. The autonomic nervous system ‘sets’ the injured area in a splint of spasm.[1]  The traumatised area becomes effectively frozen.

Emotional & Organisational Splinting & Freezing

 Physiological ‘splinting’ is a good metaphor for some forms of both emotional and organisational trauma.  Splinting occurs, non-volitionally, around physical, emotional, organisational and social trauma[2] to reduce further damage and pain.

 The American physiologist Walter Cannon, who coined the term ‘homeostasis’ to describe the ‘internal fixity’ he believed necessary for an organism to survive, was the first to describe the ‘fight-or-flight response’; “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival”.  More recently PTSD specialist Pete Walker elaborated on ‘fight-or-flight’ in describing the 4Fs: fight, flight, freeze or fawn, which are psychological response to perceived harm.  

 Simply stated, the anxiety caused by real or perceived threat to which one feels helpless to respond can result in psychic ‘freezing’ well documented in PTSD sufferers.  The symptoms can be strong involuntary disassociation from situations which trigger memories, emotional ‘numbness’, or feelings of complete powerlessness, despair and futility.  They can also manifest as ideological and ideational rigidity or even fixity, as well as in addictive behaviour. In organisations a traumatic situation – a hostile takeover, deep layoffs[3], market failure – may be ‘fixed’ or ‘splinted’ by temporary authoritarianism, extreme legalisation or bureaucraticisation.

 Aggravation & Enculturation

 In physiological ‘freezing’ the functions of the immobilised muscle groups need to be covered for, so the brain calls up substitute muscle groups which, while not adapted for that role, can temporarily ‘pinch hit’.[4] A localised injury, by calling in temporal support, sets off chains of adaptations resulting in global shifts in the ecology of coordination that characterises healthy movement and posture.  Prolonged reliance on substitutions, however, will result in the brain neuroplastically rewiring itself such that aberrant and substitute posturo-movements becomes normalized and permanent.[5]

 The same can hold true for individuals and organisations: ideological fixations, addictive behaviours, authoritarianism, legalism – all of which may have been a temporary ‘fix’ for a traumatic situation – become normalized and enculturated.  However, because temporary fixes are inadequate long-term solutions they typically engender more instances of conflict and turbulence hence further aggravating an initial trauma. A vicious circle takes hold.


[1] “By ‘splinting’ the area with spasm, the hypercontracted (shortened) muscles, ligaments and fascia effectively reduce painful joint movements. Splinting is a common form of protective guarding clinicians address day-in and day-out… “
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[2] Taboo is social splinting. Taboo is a socially strategic immobilisation around an area of conduct in which there has been great pain and damage: sex, money, mental illness, etc.

[3] David Noer, author of Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, gives a compelling account of ‘layoff survivor sickness’. “Survivors of most organizations are angry, depressed, anxious and fearful. They are not able or willing to take risks or focus on increasing customer service. At the very time organizations need them to be the most creative and energetic; they hunker down in the trenches, absorbed in their own toxic survivor symptoms.” – http://www.cnbc.com/id/32990164

[4] “Regardless of the reason for loss of joint play, when vertebrae are not free to move, muscles assigned the job of moving them (prime movers) cannot carry out their duties and are substituted by synergistic stabilizers, i.e., the brain sends in the subs when a key player is injured.”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[5] “Prolonged joint damage can set the stage for aberrant posturo-movement patterns which, in time, causes the brain, through the process of sensitization, to re-map and re-learn the dysfunctional movement as normal (neuroplasticity).”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

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