Chiropractors and movement professionals can retrain the neuromuscular system to impact autogenic inhibition
The human body is incredibly efficient at protecting itself from illness and injury. For instance, if viruses, bacteria, toxins or other harmful substances are able to enter or attach to our cells, the immune system recognizes these antigens and seeks to destroy them.
The body also has measures in place to protect other areas of our bodies, such as our muscles. One of these measures is autogenic inhibition.
Protecting from injury
The American Council on Exercise explains that autogenic inhibition occurs when a Golgi tendon organ is stimulated, causing an interruption in the associated muscle’s contraction and forcing it to relax.
This automatic reflex is designed to protect the muscle from injury during physical activities such as stretching. While this is a positive for our overall wellness, there are also times when this natural response can actually work against us.
Autogenic inhibition issues
“A muscle that is autogenically inhibited is not necessarily a problem unless it’s determined that the condition has become chronic,” says Jennifer Novak, MS, CSCS, performance recovery coach and founder of PEAK Symmetry Performance Strategies LLC in Atlanta, Georgia.
“An aberrantly inhibited muscle would be an ‘underperforming’ muscle or one that might have its contractile capability that is either delayed or inconsistent,” Novak adds. “Furthermore, a chronically inhibited muscle will change joint mechanics, which will alter the joint’s mechanoreceptor input to the brain and can change muscular output.”
This can impact joint mechanics and muscular function regionally or globally, says Novak, as the sensory nerves reporting to the central nervous system from various muscles, tendons and joint capsules are altered in a negative way.
As an example, consider a patient with chronically tight or chronically weak muscles in the calves. “That part of the ‘system’ is changing muscular tension information, joint position information, and perhaps even skin sensory receptor information being gathered in the brain for processing,” explains Novak.
Ultimately, this affects other areas of the body, such as the ankle, subtalar and metatarsophalangeal joints below the tight calves and the knee, hip, pelvis and lumbar spine above it. “And if those joints are negatively affected, the changes could potentially go all the way up the spine and affect upper extremity function, as well,” Novak adds. “This is how a dynamic system works.”
Improving muscular system performance
This is why Novak says that it is so important to ensure that the muscular system is performing the way it should. “Excluding more centrally-mediated conditions such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, techniques can be implemented to help the muscular system utilize reflexes like autogenic (and/or reciprocal) inhibition to coordinate movements and mitigate injury more appropriately,” she says.
This assistance to the muscular system occurs when movement professionals take these changes and reintegrate them into the neuromuscular system through the practice of multi-joint patterns. This enables the brain to process the new sensory input for appropriate movement execution. Novak indicates that there are a few ways to achieve this goal, some of which include:
- Approximating the musculotendinous junctions toward the muscle belly and holding until a release is felt;
- Stimulating the origin and insertion of a muscle to improve body mapping by stimulating skin receptors; and
- Utilizing low-intensity isometric contractions and holding for 5-10 seconds on either one side or both sides of the movement axis to change the stretch reflex.
“Unless the person engages in supervised exercise that is controlled, at first, for degrees of freedom and then progressed into multi-joint exercises in a motor control-led environment, the above changes may be temporal,” warns Novak. “Reintegrating the changes with supervised exercise progressions is the best way to help the brain and muscular system learn a better way to move and become autonomous with that movement.”
How chiropractors can help
“A chiropractor can certainly perform the interventions if they have been trained in the techniques, have the time to spend with their patient, and like doing manual muscular therapy,” says Novak. Otherwise, a referral may need to be made to other health care providers.
One option is a massage therapist who knows spontaneous muscular release technique, or SMRT. Another is a credentialed movement specialist such as a physical therapist, occupational therapist, strength coach, or personal trainer who is trained in muscle activation techniques, muscle energy techniques, or other techniques like Functional Range Conditioning (FRC).
“The combined structural and muscular interventions can offer a great collaboration to augment a patient’s progress,” Novak says.
At-home strength recommendations
There are also a few recommendations health care practitioners can make to help patients better restore their muscle strength in between office visits.
“My preferred method of homework is to provide isometric exercises which will actively engage the areas of the brain concerned with planning, coordinating, and executing movement,” says Novak. “In addition to reaching the somatosensory cortex, isometric exercise has been shown in research to communicate with the cerebellum for movement coordination and execution, the cingulate cortex for motor tone, the motor cortex for movement execution, and more.”
Novak goes on to say that isometrics “are both versatile and safe, and can be manipulated on many levels to provide strategic and targeted stimulation to the neuromuscular system. They’re a great bridge between therapy and dynamic movement of one’s job, sport, and/or life!”