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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 30 – July 1998
Actually, we”re all twisted! Nature is fond of the spiral, or helix form, exhibiting it in plants, shells, horns, and other natural objects. Our own bodies abound in spiral structures: at the microscopic level, the double helix formation of DNA; the spiral arrangement found in some of our bones; the twisting cochlea of our ears; the triple-helix of the umbilical cord, formed of two arteries and one vein, twisting counter-clockwise; the cystic duct of the gall bladder; the muscular fibres of the heart… The list is not exhaustive but sufficient to show that Nature, as a rule, does not like straight lines but rather favours curves, and has a marked preference for that most beautiful of curves – the spiral.
Our spines can also be rotated spirally, and some of our most graceful movements make use of this screw-like action of the spine.
It is the arrangement of our back muscles that allows for these twists and turns. Being posterior to the axis of the spine, they bend it backward (postero-flexion); situated along each side, they bend it sideways (latero-flexion); having oblique insertions on the vertebrae, they rotate it. But sometimes, the back muscles go round the twist, lose all sense of proportions, and distort the spine into a deformity labelled Idiopathic Scoliosis.
Scoliosis is usually defined as a lateral (sideways) curvature of the spine. The lateral bending can occur, and often does, at two, or three different places, counteracting each other. We have then the typical S-shape appearance of the spine. The definition of lateral curvature is a reductionist one though, failing to mention two other important and constant aspects: the rotation and the lordosis (inward curvature), which always go hand in hand with the lateral bending. When the spine bends sideways, it always turns on itself- this is a biomechanical law. Scoliosis is not a one-dimensional but a three-dimensional deformation.
Scoliosis can be congenital or the result of diseases and abnormalities of the vertebrae, nerves, and muscles. The term idiopathic scoliosis covers all forms of scoliosis of unknown origin or cause, and represents the largest group (65% of all scoliosis are of the idiopathic kind). I will concentrate here on this so-called idiopathic type of scoliosis. I wrote so-called because it is no longer a mystery for everybody. Françoise Mézières, with her discovery of the muscular chains, discovered the basic cause of idiopathic scoliosis. So, let”s look at the modus operandi of the evolution of a scoliotic bend.
The back muscles are part of the main muscular chain (we have four). That means that they behave like a single, giant muscle, and a very strong one since the tone of each muscle adds up to the following ones. The annoying characteristic of a muscular chain is its tendency to constantly shorten, stiffen, tighten, and retract. This unfortunate habit of our muscular chains explains all of our deformations, including idiopathic scoliosis (with the exception of congenital ones, or those caused by mutilations or fractures).
Nobody is perfect! (though everybody is perfectible). In fact, no one is truly immune to the scoliotic shape; practically everybody gets one”s spine twisted into a scoliotic mode. For most of us our scoliotic trait is hardly visible, only trained eyes can detect it. It is only when the twist reaches a certain degree that you get the label Scoliosis.
Asymmetry, a characteristic of life, is one of the the factors that predisposes us to this spiral shaping. Pasteur made the important discovery that asymmetry, at a chemical level, is what distinguishes living from non-living matter (he should be remembered for this brainwave rather than for having contaminated the medical profession with his twisted immunisation mania). I realise it is bad news for chiasticists (symmetry-addicts), but they must face it: from the molecular to the morphological level, living forms all show some degree of asymmetry.
Our cerebral lateralisation, manifested in handedness, makes us right or lefthanded. As a result, our movements are rarely, if ever, symmetrical, and provoke a spiral rotation of the spine and its girdles. The way we walk gives us another opportunity to twist again.
The human gait requires a rotation, in opposite direction, of the shoulder and pelvic girdles, the point of counter-rotation being situated at the 7th thoracic vertebra. Our mode of locomotion is therefore another factor contributing to the spirality of the spine.
Add to this natural twisting a strong element of asymmetry and you are on the path to distortion and deformity. Even muscles can be asymmetric, such as the diaphragm. Being part of a muscular chain, it usually suffers from tightness, and is often a culprit in the development of scoliosis. Our movements travel down the trunk and limbs in a spiral manner. The main motor of this screw-movement is the posterior muscular chain. Our shape depends on how shortened the muscular chains are, and how twisted the body.
Two factors are necessary for the muscular chains to exert a crushing force sufficient to take a disharmonious twist – to misshape the body into a full-blown scoliosis: a strong spurt of growth and a trauma of some sort (mechanical, chemical, hormonal). Among these traumas, I have a hunch that the injection of polio or tetanus vaccines acts, in some children, as a triggering factor in the spectacular shortening of the posterior muscular chain that leads to idiopathic scoliosis.
The discoveries made by Francoise Mezieres allowed her to develop a method to treat, reeducate or prevent all sorts of musculoskeletal disorders, including scoliosis. She designed precise and tailor-made postures so that her patients could be twisted out of the grip of the tight muscular chains. The key words of her treatment are to lengthen and untwist.
Mézières gave a new twist to the practice and theories of orthodox physiotherapy: the old school of thought believed that weakness of our muscles was the cause of much of our deformations; the new, enlightened school, led by Mezieres, demonstrated that too much strength in some groups of muscles, is the cause.