The Body Remembers – Childhood Origins of Adult Musculoskeletal Issues – Part I

Problems affecting your clients today may have more to do with how they were positioned in utero or aspects of their early childhood development than their stress, bad ergonomics, or lack of self-care as adults. Somatic issues triggered early in life–whether caused by injuries or learning to stand too soon–can have lasting effects on the body. Discovering if there are childhood origins for your clients’ musculoskeletal issues will help you as a massage therapist understand and unwind their patterns of chronic pain and rigidity.

Childhood Implications

Children’s tissues are not the same as adults. Compared to adults, children have connective tissues that are more mobile, muscles that are weaker and not as tight, joints that are looser, cranial bones that are less fused, and skeletal bones that are softer and more porous. As they grow, however, children’s cranial bones gradually fuse, their skin and connective tissues become less mobile, their ligaments grow more rigid, and their muscles become stronger and tighter.1 While they continue to be shaped by the demands made upon them, the skeletal bones also gradually become harder and denser. During this growing process, children’s bodies can easily become misaligned, fibrosed, or tight in ways that will affect them as adults. Scarring and shrinking of connective tissue around injuries or deformities can restrict movement and create faulty movement patterns (such as walking with one knee twisted inward to accommodate a frequently sprained ankle). Patterns of muscle tightness can also develop around a single contracted area. For example, a continuing chain of secondary muscle contractures in such muscles as the adductor longus, tensor fasciae latae, rectus femoris, and quadratus lumborum can stem from a chronically tense or shortened iliopsoas.2 The way children sit, move, and hold themselves upright can also shape their bodies. Trigger points can develop from deformities, pain, or injuries, while muscle-guarding around pain or emotional trauma can create deep and lasting tension.3 So, encourage your clients to bring in their children for bodywork when they’re young, before these issues become chronic.

Adults often forget events from their childhood, and their musculoskeletal adaptations to an accident or injury can become so habitual that by the time they experience a chronic problem, they may remember nothing about how it started.4 My client Mark, a healthy 38-year-old accountant, is a good example. Mark has seen numerous massage therapists over the past 10 years for pain in his right intrascapular area. Every few months, he had a sharp pain in that area, often when he first woke up. Mark then visited a massage therapist for two or three visits, requesting release of tension in his upper back. The pain was usually resolved for a few more months, although he always had a sensation of lingering tightness there. He reported that he never had specific injuries to the upper-back area. When I questioned him more specifically about early traumatic injuries, however, Mark remembered falling off a horse when he was 10 years old. He was not hurt by the fall itself, but as he lay on the ground, his horse stepped directly onto his chest. Mark’s chest hurt a lot for a few weeks after that, but the pain eventually went away. He finally forgot all about the incident. In working with Mark, I found that his right intrascapular muscles were only moderately tense, but his first and second ribs were anterior on the right side, and there was a buildup of fibrous tissue where the ribs articulated with the sternum. His right scalenus anterior muscle contained two exquisitely tender trigger points, which not only referred pain to his right mid-scapular area, but felt exactly like the pain he had experienced for so long. Trigger-point treatment of the right scalene anterior, along with showing Mark how to perform self-massage and stretching of the muscle, helped relieve his pain far more than when his treatments had focused on his mid-scapular region. Although Mark at first insisted on massage on his upper back alone, he left my office very satisfied with his treatment.

As a working massage therapist, learning more about childhood origins of client issues will help you understand how these problems develop, and how to unwind a pattern of chronic pain or rigidity.

Structural Problems

Unless severe, many inherited structural issues may not show up as a problem until adulthood. However, vigorous exercise that puts additional stress on an area may cause inherited problems to manifest themselves earlier.5 One inherited imbalance is Morton’s foot structure, where the foot has a much longer-than-normal second metatarsal bone. To compensate for this problem, sufferers are more likely to toe-out at heel strike and while standing. However, toeing out causes excess weight to fall upon the great toe, placing more pressure on the medial arch and the flexor hallucis tendon, which results in tightness and strain of the flexor hallucis and tibialis anterior muscles, along with frequent ankle sprains. Trigger points in the muscles of the feet, legs, and hips can develop during childhood, and eventually foot, leg, and hip pain can result. Early treatment with orthotic devices may help prevent future problems. Janet Travell, MD, treated a toddler with this condition who was not able to walk well because he was constantly falling over his feet. He was given first metatarsal toe pads and medial side heel fillers, which allowed him to begin walking immediately.6

Another common structural imbalance, hypermobility, is present in about 10 percent of individuals, and can predispose children to adult musculoskeletal pain. It is normal for children to have a greater range of motion in their joints than adults, however greater than normal ligamentous laxity can create chronic pain, even in small children.7 Hypermobility often results in muscle tightness–the body’s unconscious attempt to stabilize a loose joint–but this chronic tightness can also cause future pain and dysfunction. For example, in the feet, ligamentous laxity can result in pes planus (fallen arches) with pronation and pain in the medial side of the arch, associated mechanical strains can include ankle, knee, hip, and lower back pain caused by chronic spasm and/or trigger points around the joint.8 In the pelvis, sacroiliac dysfunction can result in chronic iliopsoas tension, as the muscle tightens to stabilize the area. Chronic tightness of the iliopsoas can have major effects on posture and ambulation, however, causing the pelvis to becomes flexed or tilted, and then compensation must be made in the upper body to counter the asymmetry.9

Margaret, a 74-year-old retired schoolteacher, is a good example of how a childhood musculoskeletal problem can progress to an adult disability. Suffering with congenital hypermobility (lax ligaments), Margaret’s left patella was first dislocated by a blow to her lateral knee during a volleyball game at age 14. Her patella was immediately reduced (put back into place) and the knee was treated with the standard treatment in 1950–heat and compression. Today, Margaret’s injury would first be treated with bracing, rest, ice, elevation, and later with strengthening exercises to help stabilize the joint. Surgery to repair a torn joint capsule, retinaculum, or vastus medialis would also be performed.

Unfortunately, Margaret continued to have repeated patellar dislocations. Two years later, her other patella began to dislocate repeatedly as well. Each time her kneecap went out, the joint was reduced, wrapped, and heated. She suffered ankle sprains and dislocations, too. Margaret’s knees began to hurt and feel stiff when she got out of bed each morning. The right knee hurt the most, and she walked with more weight on her left side to favor it. She continued to be active, however, including being on her feet at work. Twenty years after the initial dislocation, her right patella had become so unstable that she had surgery to reposition it, as well as an arthroscopy 10 years after that to remove fragments of cartilage from inside the knee joint. Her knees hurt and felt stiff all the time, and she occasionally suffered severe, debilitating spasms in her right iliopsoas muscle.

In her 60s, Margaret took up yoga and water exercise, which helped her chronic knee discomfort. Regular massage sessions also helped her live with the pain. By 2010, however, her left knee pain became incapacitating. X-rays revealed significant arthritis in the joint, and it was surgically replaced soon after. During the operation, her surgeon found not only severe osteoarthritis of the joint, but advanced contractures of the iliotibial band and lateral collateral ligaments, which had developed in her body’s vain attempt to stabilize a loose joint and to compensate for pain in the other knee.

Intra-Uterine Conditions

The later stages of pregnancy can also create future musculoskeletal problems. A large baby in the uterus of a small mother, especially a baby in an abnormal position, may be crowded in such a way that permanent changes can occur in the skeleton. For example, inward twisting of the soft fetal tibiae–although normal during late pregnancy–can, in more extreme cases, lead to future problems. At this stage of development, with the tibiae and feet rotated inward and the hips rotated outward, not only tibial twisting, but also soft-tissue contractures of the hip, may result in more extreme cases. (Children with especially long tibiae will experience more of this twisting.) In 90 percent of cases, as the child begins to walk on his or her own, the tibiae will straighten naturally, as they are constantly broken down and rebuilt along the proper lines of stress-bearing, and the soft tissue contractures at the hip are stretched back to normal. For children whose tibia remain rotated, however, they will have excessive medial ligamentous tightness, extra wear and tear on the inside of the knee joint, and a greater likelihood of developing knee osteoarthritis as an adult.10 As Rolfer and anatomist R. Lewis Schulz points out, fascial thickening across the pelvis is functional when a fetus is knee-up in the womb and during crawling, but when the child begins to stand that shortness is felt as a restriction that inhibits secure upright balance. In many cases, the fascia does not lengthen, because the growing child makes compensations to the fascial shortness in other parts of the body instead.11

Muscular adaptations can take place as well. When there is very high uterine muscle tone and the fetus has especially long femurs, a severely shortened iliopsoas may result. Exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscle are effective if performed in the first few months of life.12 Active trigger points in the leg muscles can also result from a cramped position in utero. An example is the case of a 3-year-old boy who had such severe calf pains that he napped poorly during the day, and awoke screaming at least five times each night. Treatment of trigger points in the vastus lateralis and gluteus minimus muscles of both legs resolved the problem.13 If the fetus’s head is twisted to one side during the late stages of pregnancy, torticollis can develop, with one sternocleidomastoid muscle becoming shortened and fibrotic. Stretching exercises for the shortened sternocleidomastoid are effective in almost all cases, but must be started before one year of age, otherwise, the affected muscle often becomes increasingly fibrotic and much broader than the unaffected muscle. Also, when sleeping facedown, children generally turn their heads to the shortened side, resulting in potential skull and facial deformities.14 Trigger points in this muscle can cause discomfort and referred pain, and satellite trigger points may develop in other neck muscles, such as the scalenes, trapezius, levator scapulae, and posterior neck muscles.15 As a result, adults with uncorrected torticollis can have extremely restricted mobility of the cervical spine.

Musculoskeletal Injuries

Musculoskeletal injuries are very common in children. Unsafe play, motor vehicle accidents, participation in sports, and physical abuse cause the majority of these injuries. Unless completely healed, each injury has the potential to cause problems later in life due to trigger points, muscle spasm, myofascial restriction, scar tissue, ligamentous laxity, cranial bone malalignment, or armoring (guarding with muscle tension). Inefficient compensation patterns–such as favoring a painful area to minimize pressure on it–are also very common, but can contribute to negative soft tissue and osseous changes over time.

At 8 years of age, Genie Martin fell 20 feet out of a tree, striking branches on the way down, and hitting her head hard enough to be knocked unconscious. She suffered intense chest wall pain as a result of the impact. “Pain, here-to-fore unknown to me except for little hurts, was now my constant companion–a more nagging, convulsive, ruthless, and demanding companion I had never known about in all my small life. Pain kept me awake at night–made my head ache with every move and burned my chest with fire–so much that I squeezed my arms tightly around to smother the flames,” Martin writes. From that time on, Martin carried a great deal of tension in her chest, and had chest pain when she was anxious. Many negative emotions were carried in her chest, including a fear of falling, a fear of trying new things, and a fear of recurring pain. As an adult, Martin slept with her arms gripped so tightly over her chest that sometimes when she awoke they were numb. While receiving massages, she had to make a tremendous effort to stop her arms from springing over her chest to protect it.16

Continued in Part II tomorrow

By Marybetts Sinclair
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, September/October 2010. Copyright 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.


The Hands of Faith Holistic Healing Centers into a peaceful retreat that offers a variety of healing modalities including, Naturopathy, Digestive Health/Enzyme Nutrition, Therapeutic Massage, and Energy Healing. We specialize in Detoxification/Anti-aging issues, and will work with any patient who is looking to optimize their health and get to the bottom on their chronic illness. Whether you are seeking help with a specific condition or unexplained symptoms, we will provide you with a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan to return you to optimal health. We would be honored if you would allow us to assist you along your healing journey.

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