Sometimes we take our body for granted and don’t even realise how much is actually going on and what it all does for us. This is why I am continuing my series about the different organs and body systems that we have. Today’s article is about the musculo-skeletal system.
We all know that without our muscles and bones we couldn’t be able to move but did you know that certain muscles within the body help the bones to stay together? These are known as the tendons and ligaments. Also it is because of joints that we can move – there are three different types of joints within the body:
- Synovial (or freely movable) – these are the main joints within the body and enable us to move in many different directions with a wide range of movement. The obvious ones are our shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles. These can be further classified based on the structure of the joint. Synovial fluid is a thick sticky substance which is secreted by the synovial membrane into joint cavities to provide nutrients for the joint structures, remove cell debris and microbes, lubricate the joint (if your joints crack them you may need to address this issue) and to keep the joint stable. There are also pads called bursa which also help to cushion the joints.
- Cartilaginous (or slightly movable) – these are joints which have a pad of fibrocartilage between the bone which cushions and protects the joint. The spine is a great example of this.
- Fibrous (or fixed) – these joints do not move and have fibrous tissue between them – an example is the sutures of the skull which make labour easier and which fuse as part of a babies development to protect the brain.
Our bones not only support us and allow us to move about but the structure of them helps to protect our important organs (this is why we have a skull and a rib cage reducing the risk of injury to these essential organs). Bones also act as mineral storage serving as a reservoir for calcium and phosphorus, essential minerals for various cellular activities throughout the body. Our blood cells are also made within the marrow of certain bones within the body, finally bones act as another energy store where lipids, such as fats can be stored in adipose cells of the yellow marrow.
Muscles may seem as just for movement but they also play other important functions such as supporting the cardiovascular system by helping your blood to return back to your heart, storing energy in the form of glycogen (a form of sugar) and playing an active part in your metabolism. Because muscles assist in pumping blood back to the heart they also have a role to play in supporting the distribution of our immune cells (white blood cells) throughout the body to help to combat any infections (another reason why exercise improves immunity). All muscle movement is controlled by nerves which are supplied by the spinal cord, muscles move by working together as a team, groups of muscle cells work together to produce movement such as the biceps to bend your arm and your triceps to straighten your arm. Just as there are three types of joints within the body, there are also three types of muscles:
- Cardiac muscle is only in the heart and is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body. Cardiac muscle tissue cannot be controlled consciously, so it is an involuntary muscle. While hormones and signals from the brain adjust the rate of contraction, cardiac muscle stimulates itself to contract. Because of its self-stimulation, cardiac muscle is considered to be the natural pacemaker, autorhythmic or intrinsically controlled. The cells of cardiac muscle tissue are striated, striations indicate that a muscle cell is very strong, unlike visceral muscles.
- Smooth (or visceral/involuntary) this muscle is found inside of organs such as the stomach, intestines, and blood vessels. The weakest of all muscle tissues, visceral muscle makes organs contract to move substances through the organ. When we eat food it is passed down our food pipe (oesophagus), through our stomach and into are intestines using these smooth muscles. This group of muscles are controlled by the unconscious part of the brain (our Autonomic Nervous System ANS) and are known as involuntary muscles because they cannot be directly controlled by the conscious mind. The term “smooth muscle” is often used to describe visceral muscle because it has a very smooth, uniform appearance when viewed under a microscope. This smooth appearance starkly contrasts with the banded appearance of cardiac and skeletal muscles. When you experience griping pains or stomach ache is can be due to the smooth muscle contracting which is why herbalists such as myself use anti-spasmodic herbs to relax and soothe this muscle group when supporting digestive issues.
- Skeletal (or voluntary) – this is composed of bundles of fibres, muscle fibres are long structures which lay parallel and appear striped under a microscope (you can see this when you cut through cooked meat too). Our skeletal muscle contracts to produce the movement we mastered as a toddler, they also produce heat to keep us warm as well as make continual small contractions which help to maintain our posture. There are roughly 700 different skeletal muscles within the body which make up roughly half our body weight.
The health and wellbeing of our musculoskeletal system can be affected by many factors including: toxins release from an infection, auto-immune conditions (Rheumatoid arthritis for example), changes in our circulation (if we have poor circulation then the bones and joints are the last parts of the body to get the necessary nutrients and get rid of metabolic waste, our hormones also affect this body system e.g. menopause, thyroid issues, adrenal issues, our diet and lifestyle have a huge influence on the health of this body system and if we are not active enough and do not eat balanced nutritional food then our muscles and bones can miss out.
“An adequately functioning musculoskeletal system is a key factor for functional capacity, independence, and good quality of life. Impaired functional capacity and degenerative diseases of the musculoskeletal organs are one of the most prevalent and increasing sources of morbidity and suffering. Physical activity positively influences most structural components of the musculoskeletal system that are related to functional capabilities and the risk of degenerative diseases. Physical activity also has the potential to postpone or prevent prevalent musculoskeletal disorders, such as mechanical low back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and osteoporosis and related fractures. Exercise can contribute to the rehabilitation of musculoskeletal disorders and recovery from orthopedic surgery. A substantial part of the age-related decline in functional capabilities is not due to aging per se but to decreased and insufficient physical activity. Physical activity has great potential to favorably influence both the normal and pathological structures, functions, and processes. Musculoskeletal benefits of physical activity can be attained by people of all ages and with various diseases. This potential is substantial because many benefits are gained by activity which is moderate in amount and intensity. Scientific evidence is sufficient to recommend regular lifelong physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone in order to enhance musculoskeletal health and functions for individual and population levels.” Vuori, I “Exercise and physical health: musculoskeletal health and functional capabilities.” Res Q Exerc Sport. 1995 Dec;66(4):276-85.
Bone health should be addressed as a continuum across the life span. For example, physical activity, or lack of physical activity, early in life may be a determinant of bone health later in life. A second factor is things that influence the rate of loss with aging. If you have young children please get them as active as you can during their tender years to ensure health and wellbeing when they are older. Exercise may seem daunting but the key is to find something that ignites a spark of passion in you which is moderately active so if it is dancing around, gardening, housework even! It is still classed as activity by raising the heart beat and getting you moving. Being stationary and not moving is the biggest contributing factor to illness – it may be great to snuggle on the sofa but every night? If you have an office job and then chilling on the sofa every evening where is the activity required to keep you feeling energetic, enjoying life, having the vitality to do what you want and getting out of staring at a box (albeit a thin one) each night. Turn off the telly and have some fun 🙂
Getting outside is another important factor – our western diet is quite high in calcium which is required for bone health but we still have high levels of osteoporosis which is where our bones go fragile. Getting outside gives us access to natural amounts of Vitamin D which helps the body absorb the calcium. Also magnesium is essential to our bone health and is a mineral that a lot of people are deficient off – treat yourself to an epsom salts bath to top up your magnesium levels (it is absorbed through the skin) or get a decent supplement. If you have digestive issues then you may not be able to assimilate the nutrients that you are eating, I will happily help you address these issues to help improve your quality of life.
In terms of joint health, osteoarthritis is a common issue due to the wear and tear on our weight bearing joints over our lifetime. It can be difficult to address whether physical activity is a benefit or a risk, swimming is an excellent activity here as it supports the joints, yoga and the other stretching therapies are also really beneficial. Running would impact the knees which are common sites of osteoarthritis, but there are alternatives the key is to find something which gets you moving and which you enjoy – photography may not seem like a sport, but if you like taking landscape photographs and choose to climb a tree or a hill for the view are you not being active?
Musculoskeletal conditions are currently the most common cause of chronic disability. Globally, the number of people suffering from musculoskeletal conditions has increased by 25 percent over the past decade. This is expected to continue increasing with the ageing of our populations. Affordable measures to prevent and treat musculoskeletal conditions are available.
The primary musculoskeletal conditions include:
- Inflammatory arthritis (principally, rheumatoid arthritis)
- Back pain
- Musculoskeletal injuries (such as occupational and sports injuries and road traffic accidents)
- Crystal arthritis (such as gout)
- Osteoporosis and fragility fractures
Musculoskeletal conditions make up 2 percent of the global disease burden. Osteoarthritis accounts for the largest portion – 52 percent of the total burden of musculoskeletal conditions in developing countries, and 61 percent of the total burden of musculoskeletal conditions in industrialized countries. Osteoarthritis is increasing as the world’s elderly population grows, and is the sixth leading cause of years lost to disability.
If you would like support with any of the issues raised here I am more than happy to help. My contact details can be found here: http://www.herbsforhealthandwellbeing.co.uk/how-to-contact-a-herbalist-in-grimsby.html