Why It Matters for Diagnosing and Treating Unexplained Pain

Seeing the body as a tensegrity structure has been one of the linchpins in both my comprehension and treatment of chronic unexplained pain for three decades.

I offer here a brief overview of this term. Once you understand the concept of a tensegrity structure, and once you begin to see the body as a living example of it, you'll never think about pain as an isolated phenomenon again.


An Architectural Term Applied to the Human Body

The concept of "tensegrity" (tensional integrity) is an architectural principle that has been applied to human body structure to understand how it maintains balance and functional integrity.

The term was originally coined by the innovative American inventor and architect, Buckminster Fuller, in the mid-20th century. He used it to describe architectural structures that maintain their form through the balance of tension and compression elements.

The Needle Tower in Washington, D.C. is one of the most iconic examples of architectural tensegrity.

Image of the Needle Tower, one of the most iconic examples of tensegrity.

The Needle Tower was designed by artist Kenneth Snelson for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. 

And here is a very basic tensegrity structure: a dome comprised of wooden dowels and rubber bands.

Tensegrity model made of wooden dowels and rubber bands.

The tensegrity model was first applied to the human body by Dr. Stephen Levin, an orthopedic surgeon, in the late 20th century. He observed the biomechanical behaviors of animals in their natural environment and noted that their movements didn't fully align with the standard lever system principles taught in biomechanics.

Instead, their movements seemed to be more consistent with the tensegrity principles observed in certain types of architectural structures.

In the context of the human body, tensegrity helps describe how different structural components (like bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments) interact.

Bones are the compression elements, "floating" in a network of tension elements (muscles, tendons, and ligaments). This interplay between tension and compression allows for stability and flexibility in the body.

Here we have another tensegrity structure designed to help visualize the legs and pelvis of the human body.


How Tensegrity Helps Us To Understand Unexplained Pain

From a medical perspective, tensegrity can help explain why certain types of pain or injury aren't detectable through conventional testing procedures like MRI, X-rays, or CT scans.

These diagnostic tools often focus on isolated parts of the body, not taking into account the interconnected nature of all our body's components.

Pain can sometimes be the result of imbalances or disturbances in the tensegrity system.

An extremely common example of this occurs with low back pain.

For example, tightness in the leg muscles, especially the hamstrings, is a typical root cause of back pain.

Due to the attachment at the sit bone, tight and short hamstring muscles can prevent the pelvis from normal freedom of movement. This can exert enormous strain on the low back.

Graphic image of the hamstring muscles, labeled.

Hamstring Muscles

Another example is tightness and inflexibility in the gluteal muscles and hip joints. Restriction of hip range of motion can result, not only in pain or nagging discomfort in these muscles, but can also force the low back muscles to work too hard.

Image of the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius muscles.

Gluteus Minimus and Gluteus Medius Muscles

The incidence of pain in these examples could happen without any detectable "injury" visible in an MRI or X-ray of the low back itself.

Why?

Because the cause of the pain is not local damage to the back. The root cause of the low back pain is transmitted strain from tightness in another location.

In this example, low back pain would not be relieved in any lasting way by treatment to the low back muscles.

Rather we would need to either 1) improve the resting length of the hamstrings or 2) improve flexibility in the gluteals and hip joints.


New Approaches to Unexplained Pain

Applying the tensegrity model in the medical field has led to the development of therapies and treatments aimed at restoring balance in the body's structure, such as certain types of physical therapy, osteopathy, and other bodywork techniques.

One of the central methods I have used for many years is Active Isolated Stretching. Not only does this method avoid the triggering the protective stretch reflex, but Active Isolated Stretching is easy to learn, easy to do and extremely time-efficient.

Drawing from the principle of tensegrity and the method of Active Isolated Stretching, I've crafted an in-depth self-guided course for addressing a wide range of pain and discomfort in the body.

This course can be especially beneficial for patients with chronic pain that can't be traced back to a specific injury or degenerative process.

The concept of tensegrity offers a holistic view of the human body, providing a framework for understanding pain and dysfunction that eludes conventional diagnostic methods.

It underscores the body's interconnectedness, highlighting the fact that disturbance in one part of the system can have far-reaching effects on other parts of the body.

This understanding is essential for the development of more comprehensive and effective treatment strategies to help resolve the epidemic of undiagnosed and unexplained pain.



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