3. Surprising Signs of Misalignment: Assess Yourself
This is the third article in a series about body alignment. Scroll down for the start of the article.
I went from enjoying an active lifestyle to being unable to take a quick, short walk without significant pain and discomfort. I wrote this series in hopes of helping other people avoid this fate or overcome similar problems. Don’t mistake this for professional advice – I’m not a physical therapist. The culprit in my body’s misalignment is a left leg half an inch shorter than the right. Even if your legs are the same length, you could still be suffering from alignment problems and benefit from what I’ve learned.
I went from enjoying an active lifestyle to being unable to take a quick, short walk without significant pain and discomfort.
I wrote this series in hopes of helping other people avoid this fate or overcome similar problems. Don’t mistake this for professional advice – I’m not a physical therapist.
The culprit in my body’s misalignment is a left leg half an inch shorter than the right. Even if your legs are the same length, you could still be suffering from alignment problems and benefit from what I’ve learned.
Articles in the Alignment Series
- Is your balance worse on one side? Could alignment be the problem? Describes the progressive deterioration I experienced over the course of decades, slowly at first, then rapidly. My right leg mysteriously twisted inward and I lost my balance on that side. Figuring out what was happening was a long, frustrating and expensive process.
- If your body’s alignment is a problem, how will you know? In this article I tackle several topics, like does alignment even matter? The biggest message I hope you take away is that when we take a reductionist view of our injuries and pain points we miss the chance to make long lasting changes to our bodies.
- Surprising Signs of Misalignment: Assess Yourself [YOU ARE HERE] Learn ways to get a sense of your skeletal alignment.
- Exercising for Alignment Remember, I am not a strength trainer. I’m not even pretending to be one on the internet. I’ve done many, many exercises and programs to try to improve my chronic problems, as prescribed by professionals. Nothing has been as effective at re-shaping my body as the way I exercise now.
- 12 Random Tips, Insights and Admonitions About Alignment A mash up of things I’ve learned and things that have helped during this process.
Your body is talking. Are you listening?
After my legs were measured by X-ray last January I had the sole of my left shoe lifted 1 cm. It’s now at 1.3 cm, but that’s a story for another time.
These are a few of the changes I noticed in the first 3 months after altering the shoe:
- Rib flare: My bottom left rib, which had always flared out, sank into my abdomen. I thought that rib was deformed during my development but actually my entire rib cage was off axis.
- Missing muscle: I had a deep depression at the top of my left thigh, where my hands sits in my pants pocket. That disappeared. I now realize it was atrophied muscle – TFL or a quad muscle. Everyone loves to talk about hip flexors and glutes. No one ever notices your poor TFL.
- “Inactive” glutes: Speaking of glutes, my left glute, which had long ago been diagnosed as “weak and inactive” and the likely culprit of my chronic hip pain, suddenly came to life and started to grow in size. This, after I dedicated nearly a decade to trying to activate and strengthen it.
- Mysterious thudding in lower back: When doing a “Dead Bug” exercise, I felt a thudding sensation deep inside when I extended my right leg. That stopped. I’m pretty sure it was misalignment in my sacrum.
- Asymmetrical tightness: With a standing side bend stretch, I was much tighter on my left side than the right. My pilates instructor, who insisted my leg length difference was “functional”, claimed the tightness was a sign I needed to “lengthen and strengthen” that side of my body. After adjusting my shoe, the asymmetrical tightness disappeared.
I was shocked by these changes. If I noticed any of these things previously, I thought I was just made that way. Even my height changed. Physical features I lived with forever, that I thought indelible, changed within a few months.
The experience upended my thinking. Now I understand the potency of position and alignment. I gave up the idea that exercising weak or tight muscles would fix my problems and I knew why all the methods I’d tried previously failed. If it’s true that our muscles hold our skeleton in position, it’s at least as true that the position of our bones shape our muscles.
I had a new mental model to work with: alignment would fix strength imbalances, not the other way around. With this insight I’ve arrested and begun to reverse the twisting in my right leg and am undoing the damage caused by living so many years with misalignment. In the next article I’ll explain how I do that in practical terms, but first here are some things you can look at in yourself to get a sense of your own alignment.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to see the signs of misalignment, but I didn’t notice anything until it was late in the game. I’ve been examined by many professionals. Most of this stuff was missed by them as well. Even when I asked about some of the symptoms, like joints that cracked more and more often, the symptoms were dismissed as unimportant. Everything on this list has started to reverse or diminish as my alignment has improved.
I believe that any asymmetries between the right and left sides of the body are signs of misalignment and should be addressed as such. This includes visual signs, functional signs and persistent one-sided injuries.
Visual signs: mismatched muscle sizes, uneven shoulders and hips, knees and feet that point in different directions, arms that hang at your sides differently etc.
Functional asymmetries: differences in muscle tightness, strength or flexibility between the right and left sides of the body. Even my jaw doesn’t open and close straight.
As my misalignment grew progressively worse, the joints in my ankles and feet started cracking – a lot. I also developed lines of tension across my feet and up and down my legs. That still happens, but is diminishing.
This was another big surprise. There’s definitely a correlation between my alignment and my experience with restless legs syndrome.
Roller skis don’t track straight in double pole
Every couple of pole strokes I had to lift my roller ski and reposition it so it faced straight again. I tried roller skiing the other day for the first time in a year and my skis tracked straight, so, yeah.
Asymmetrical “overuse” injuries
If it wasn’t such a serious problem, this diagnosis would make me laugh. What if the treads on one of your tires wore down, but the others were OK? Then your mechanic said it was because you drove too far.
Wouldn’t you have some questions about your car’s alignment, to say nothing of your mechanic’s expertise?
Overuse is a common explanation for injuries, even when they are one-sided. Your knee hurts? How far did you run? Obviously, you overdid it and didn’t give your body a chance to “adapt”.
I’m not saying overuse injuries aren’t a thing, but if the issue is only on one side of the body, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that alignment is a problem? With better alignment could you have “used” your body more before it broke down?
This as enormously important and is something I work on every day. How you distribute your weight on your feet can tell you a lot about your alignment. It should be even between each foot and between the heel, big toe joint and little toe joint.
You can get a sense of this with a simple, body weight squat. With this set up, I can be fairly precise with my foot placement. (I practice with a wide variety of stance widths and toe angles.)
I imagine a plumb line running through my body and try to keep it aligned with the notch on the floor plate. Can I keep the line straight all the way through the movement or do I veer over to one side? What does my weight feel like on the bottom of my feet? Does it change as I move?
You can even check how you distribute your weight on your sit bones. Sit on a flat bench with your feet supported on the floor. Shift from one sit bone to the other and compare how that feels.
You’ll feel a difference if your pelvis is tilted or torqued out of alignment. My Feldenkrais practitioner helped me discover that I had trouble shifting over onto my sit bone on the same side where I had lost my balance.
Relax, lying flat on your back. Spend a few minutes sensing your shape against the ground. Feel the impression your body makes on the ground. Do your feet point in different directions? How do your calves, thighs, buttocks, shoulder blades and head rest against the ground. What are your hands and arms doing?
In standing: Stand with your heels backed up against a wall, but your body tilted slightly forward. Gradually tilt back against the wall and feel how your body makes contact with the wall. Do your shoulder blades strike at the same time? How far back do you have to go to make contact with your head?
In hindsight, it’s so obvious that misalignment sabotaged my balance. Why is this never talked about amongst ski coaches? Balance is a critical skill for nordic skiing, but balance is almost exclusively framed within the context of proprioception and hip stability and strength.
Once you know what to look for, you’ll be amazed by what you notice, both in yourself and in others.
I study everyone’s walking gait now, including my own. I watch how legs and arms swing. I look at hands and feet. I try to sense how my pelvis rolls as I walk. I look at how people land on and come off their feet.
Movement patterns are a big tell for alignment problems, but difficult to detect until you’ve had some practice.
Problems unfold over decades
Seniors’ homes are filled with bent and crippled bodies. This doesn’t suddenly happen in our seventies or eighties – the process is underway long before then – probably in our teens and twenties.
My right leg was literally twisting beneath me. Defining it as a problem of whole body alignment was key to arresting the process and beginning my rehabilitation.
So how do we fix alignment?
Physiotherapists prescribe treatment plans that target areas of weakness and inflexibility in hopes of correcting imbalances and improving alignment. I think it’s more true that improving alignment is a powerful way to improve muscle imbalances and tightness. I’m unconvinced it works the other way.
I base this on my experience of diligently following many such treatment plans, all without success, then experiencing profound physical changes to my body within just a few months of getting my shoes altered. (Note: A partial heel lift inside my shoe didn’t cause any changes I could notice.)
This insight has been a guiding light for me. It helped me define a process I call “exercising for alignment” which has led to more rapid and profound changes to my body than anything I’ve previously experienced, except for pregnancy.
Next Article: Exercising for Alignment