A popular saying among soft tissue specialists is, “the muscles hold the bones together, you don’t need to adjust the bones, it doesn’t release the muscles”. This common misconception stems from a misunderstanding about how spinal manipulation actually works. It does release the deep postural muscles as I will explain.
As a side note, the bones are held together by ligaments, the muscles attach via tendons and create the power to move the joints, rather than physically holding them together in the majority of cases. Releasing the muscles through soft tissue techniques doesn’t automatically bring the spine and joints back into alignment and so the same restrictions can crop up over and over again.
I started out as an equine sports massage therapist and got great results, the horses were happy, my clients were happy, but there was something I felt was missing from my practice. After training as a McTimoney Animal Practitioner, I am now of the opinion that to truly rehabilitate the body back to full function and prevent further injury occurring, the release of all joints and soft tissues must first take place. This allows functional full range of motion before rehabilitation can occur with the use of exercise, stretching etc. As someone who suffers from back pain due to a spinal injury, I know first-hand how painful stretching and mobilisation can be if muscles are tight and the body has not been brought into alignment first. Symmetrical muscle building occurs more quickly, and is more effective, once all spasms, tension and restrictions through the joints have been removed.
The muscles that are affected directly by spinal manipulation lay deep within the back and neck. These muscles control posture and stabilise the spine, they are always firing, so restriction and dysfunction of these muscles causes pain during everyday tasks and ridden activities for the horse. The most important muscles are called the multifidus, which sits directly next to and around the spine. It is composed of two sections, one which runs from the pelvis to the base of the neck and the second part which runs the length of the neck. The psoas is another important muscle which sits inside the pelvis, attaching to the underside of the lumbar spine and to the top of the femur. It is often implicated in recurrent low back pain, and forms an important part of the horses core muscles, it needs to function correctly for the horse to be able to work without pain and with correct biomechanics.
Using ultrasound scanning, researchers have found that spinal manipulation does release the deep multifidus muscle. Spasm of this muscle causes a decrease in the cross sectional depth of the muscle, after spinal manipulation the cross section measurement was increased, showing that manipulation of the spine causes release of muscle spasm in the deep postural muscles. In human patients the muscle spasms were found at the point that pain was felt, which was reported to have been relieved by spinal manipulation.
The McTimoney technique uses high speed movements to cause a joint to regain its full range of motion, this affects both the muscles and the myofacia, which is an important connective tissue that wraps around all muscles, bones and other structures within the body. The practitioner uses reflexes within their own muscles, which have been trained to respond during certain movements of the arms.
After an initial assessment of the horse, which includes questioning the owner or rider, watching for gait abnormalities, and checking that veterinary permission has been granted, the treatment can begin. When treating, the practitioner first feels for spinal misalignments, by feeling each side of the vertebrae. The tiny rotation of the bones can occur either due to tightening of the muscle attached to one side of the bone, or by direct trauma to the joints themselves, perhaps by getting cast or slipping and falling in the field. To release the tight muscle and realign the vertebrae, the practitioner places pressure on the bone to rotate it to its end of range of movement without forcing it. The McTimoney practitioner then uses a quick movement at the speed of a nerve reflex to “toggle” the bone and allow it to bounce back. This activates the nerves supplying the muscle which in turn releases it, allowing the muscle to relax. The stretch within the muscle and myofascia during adjustment and the consequent recoil of the bone causes relaxation of the muscles surrounding and attached to the bone.
This “relaxing and releasing” stage continues over time, and according to research I have conducted, can continue to create positive changes for up to 2 weeks after treatment. The nerves, which leave the spine by passing between the joints of the vertebrae, are now free from restriction to work at their optimum, the joints of the spine are now free to rotate through their full range of motion and muscles are now able to work at their optimum.
The practitioner will systematically move through the whole body making adjustments as necessary. Once the whole skeleton is realigned and the deep muscles have been released, it is then that massage or other techniques will be employed to make sure all the superficial muscles are released too. Personally I use a combination of sports massage, acupressure and myofacial release which gives a truly whole body treatment. I have found this approach leads to the need for fewer treatments to get the body to respond and stay in this prime state, treatments can be spaced further apart because it tends to hold for longer, allowing the muscles to build strength. Combined with good riding practices, a well-fitting saddle and further rehabilitation exercises given as part of the aftercare advice, the horse will begin to even up and will be able to use itself much more efficiently.
Horses that have strong muscles, good proprioception, and are fit, are far less likely to injure themselves. This is the aim of the McTimoney practitioner, to improve the horse, reduce the likelihood of repeated injury and allow for a longer, healthier working life. In the long run this reduces the amount of money spent by the owner, by reducing the number of treatments required and it reduces the amount of time to full recovery following the initial injury.
McTimoney practitioners are highly qualified and are trained at postgraduate degree level and hold an MSc in Animal Manipulation. They work alongside vets, riding instructors, saddle fitters, dentists and other allied professionals to help both the horse and owner or rider improve. Therapists will offer advice on changes that can be made and will refer to other professionals where necessary, to help owners get the best out of their horses, it gives great satisfaction to help a horse and owner move on, prevent early breakdown and give the horse the best chance of a long, healthy working life.
This article was published in Everything Horse UK magazine November 2014.