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.

[thrive_text_block color=”green” headline=”Background”]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. [/thrive_text_block]

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Surprising Signs of Misalignment: Assess Yourself [YOU ARE HERE] Learn ways to get a sense of your skeletal alignment.
  4. 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.
  5. 12 Random Tips, Insights and Admonitions About Alignment A mash up of things I’ve learned and things that have helped during this process.

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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.

Asymmetries

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.

Cracking joints

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.

Restless Legs

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?

Weight Distribution

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.

Body Scans

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?

Bad-side balance

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.

It’s Endless

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

9 thoughts on “3. Surprising Signs of Misalignment: Assess Yourself”

  1. I can sympathize Kim. I’ve spent years trying to get/keep my body in alignment. When I suddenly had issues with severe muscle cramping in my legs, I went for deep tissue massage and something got released that made my knee go haywire. Turns out I may have been walking/running poorly all these years, putting strain on the outsides of my legs from not getting over top of my bones. Amazing how the body can compensate – until it can’t. I always wondered why I looked bow legged riding a bike. Sucking in my knees is making a difference, slowly but surely (along with therapy and NUCCA chiropractic). Your story is quite profound. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Elliot. I just started NUCCA too – I’ll try anything, so thank goodness my husband’s sympathy and support are apparently without bounds! Our stories are far too common. It’s like we’re all on the same collision course, but some of us just get there before others.

  2. I’m not a skier but an ex-Marine who at 79 realized that I had (not) suddenly lost the ability to balance on my right leg. Three knee surgeries, two foot surgeries and one ankle surgery later I now have a severe supination of my right ankle that needs an air cast to support. I will try to regain my ability to balance on that right leg by concentrating on my alignment. Thanks for the article which is the only one seemingly available on the subject. I will report on my progress. Again, Thank You…

    • Hi John – I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles. It’s been about a year now since the penny dropped and I realised my problem was total body misalignment. Changing my alignment has been one of the most profound physical experiences of my life. It’s lead me to conclude that every non-acute injury and issue I’ve been troubled by over the decades stems from this problem. I literally have been walking back in time, experiencing old pains, discomforts and sensations that I recall from the past and a host of new ones as well. It’s not easy, but it’s been mostly positive. Even though there are dark times, overall I am shedding pain I have lived with for years, always wondering if that was “normal”.

      We might not get completely better but I do think we can get better every day. I can’t overstate the importance of finding ways to connect bony landmarks on your skeleton to external frames of reference. Also, weight distribution!!! Explore that relentlessly. Good luck!

  3. 44 with tons of hip and back pain over past 2.5 yrs. Had torn hiplabrum repaired by chicago’s Best hip repair surgeon. Did all PT per protocol, 2-3rd opinions, pelvic floor pt, dry needling, tpi, cortidone, prp, etc. everything. 3rd chiro thinks remaining issues are alignment based. Arpwave quiets it short term and started nucca with same chiro next wk. there’s literally nothing left so I’m desperate yet hopeful!

  4. Hi Kim,

    Great stuff you have here. I really enjoyed reading through all your website. My situation sounds very familiar to yourself and I totally agree with everything you have said. I too have ran the gambit of phyio’s and chiro’s and snake potions, 99% of them trying to suck as much money out of you before you move on.

    The bottom line is, this stuff takes time and is extremely complex. I got the cracking front hip, aka, snapping hip syndrome. High right shoulder, randomly left popping sacrum area when laying down, and the list goes on and on. One day,I really wish you can get to that place of pain-free and satisfying level of physical activity. I really hope all that hard work doesn’t far outweigh the benefits you are rewarded with.

    Hanna Somatics/Feldenkrais has been one of my favorite therapies to date, it’s not surprising you have mentioned it several times on your pages. I have also wondered a lot about my structural leg length but have concluded it must be functional. But now after reading your experiences I’d really like to explore more into whether it may be structural.

    How did you have your legs x-rayed? May I ask where you had this done to determine it? I am also in the Calgary area and would feel very confident going to the same place you did to have the assessment done.

    Thank you very much,

    Brandon

  5. Hi Kim.
    I am feeling pain on right hip which goes down that leg. My right foot always points outwards.i can not keep my right foot straight.

    Doctor says sciatica. Physiotherapy says piriformis syndrome.

    What do you think it is because doctor and physiotherapist could not help me.

    Thanks for your help

  6. Hie i too have a problem i place my weight on one leg while walking and others seems short i dont know what to do please help me

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