Most conventional doctors' approach to orthopedic pain and injuries is "medicate or cut." But there are alternatives. Before resorting to powerful drugs or surgery, people who suffer from aching knees, backs, shoulders, hips or necks owe it to themselves to first try physical therapy.

Secret to permanent pain relief: A specialized form of physical therapy that focuses on fascia (the tough sheet of connective tissue found in all parts of your body) is one of the most effective - yet underused-cures for joint pain.

Why Does It Work?

Over time, the fascia (pronounced fash-eeuh) throughout your body can become less flexible from lack of exercise. Repetitive movements, such as typing, knitting, golfing or tennis playing...bad posture...or trauma, including bruising or surgery, also affect the fascia. When the fascia tightens, your muscles no longer contract properly. This results in muscle weakness that can lead to aches and pains in other parts of the body.

Important: If the fascia is injured, it won't show up on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, which doctors routinely use to diagnose orthopedic problems. But unhealthy fascia often is the underlying cause of joint and muscle pain.

The Key To Healthy Fascia

To check the resilience of your fascia, place your palm flat on a table and spread your fingers as wide as possible. Using the thumb and index finger of your other hand, pinch a fold of skin on the back of your flattened hand. Pull it up and hold it for five seconds. Then let go. If the skin snaps back and becomes completely flat instantaneously, your fascia is highly elastic and healthy. If it takes longer than two seconds, your fascia has lost some elasticity.

For the health of your fascia…

  • Stay hydrated. The fascia in your body is 70% water. For proper hydration, drink at least 64 ounces of filtered water or purified bottled water per day if you're male or 48 ounces daily if you're female.

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet by limiting sugar consumption (including fruit juices and sweets), trans fats (“partially hydrogenated oils" found in many packaged and fast foods) and fried foods.

Take supplements to further reduce inflammation. For example, ask your doctor about taking 1.5 grams (g) to 25 g of fish oil per day (taken with meals)...and a daily joint-support supplement that combines glucosamine and chondroitin (components of joint tissue and cartilage, respectively-consult a naturopathic or integrative medicine physician for advice on specific dosages and any precautions that should be taken when using these supplements.

Stretching Tight Fascia

The following three fascial stretches address some especially common problem areas.

Important: Always warm up with two minutes of continuous movement, such as jogging in place or performing arm circles, before stretching.*

  • Hip flexor stretch. This stretch affects the psoas, a muscle that connects the base of the spine to the hip bones. Tight psoas muscles are a major-and under-recognized-cause of low-back pain as well as hip and knee pain.

What to do: Place a chair on each side of your body. Kneel on your right knee and place your left leg in front of you with your left foot flat on the ground and your left knee bent 90 degrees. Place the palm of each hand on the seat of each chair. Next, tilt your torso to the left. While maintaining this tilt, rotate your torso to the right.

*These stretches should not be performed by pregnant women or people with bone cancer, acute pain or recent muscle tears or strains.

Lift your chest and tuck your chin to your chest. Clench your buttocks to press your right hip forward. To avoid arching your back, contract your abdominal muscles.

Finally, while pressing your right foot downward, imagine that you're dragging your right knee forward and contract the muscles you would use to do this. You should feel a deep stretch in the front of your right hip. Hold for 20 seconds, keeping your buttocks firmly contracted. Relax for 10 seconds, then hold for 30 seconds more. Switch legs and repeat on the other side.

  • Shrug muscle stretch. This stretch affects the trapezius muscle, which runs from the lower back to the outer shoulder and base of the skull. The stretch can help relieve neck stiffness, which is often due to a tight trapezius.

What to do: While seated or standing, hold your right arm five inches out from your hip,

elbow straight. Bend your wrist slightly behind your body and drop your chin to your chest. Rotate your chin to the right about 30 degrees, and hold it there while you tilt the upper part of your head to the left. Press your right shoulder down hard, away from your ear and hold for 20 seconds. You should feel a stretch from the back of your head to the outer edge of your right shoulder. Rest for 10 seconds, then hold for 30 seconds more. Repeat on the left side.

  • Biceps stretch. This stretch helps with a range of problems, including shoulder pain, tennis elbow and golfer's elbow. It also strengthens muscles in the mid-back, which helps improve posture. For this stretch, you'll need a chair and a low table.

What to do: Place the chair back against the table and sit with your feet flat on the floor. Put

both arms on the table behind you with the backs of your hands facing down. Pull both shoulders backward and lift your chest. Next, walk both feet slightly left-ward so your torso is rotated to the left. Straighten your right elbow and bend your right wrist up, touching the fingers and thumb of your right hand together in a point (your left hand should remain flat on the table).

Next, tilt your head to the left, and rotate it to the left so that the right side of your neck feels a stretch. Then drop your chin to your left collarbone. It should feel like a strap is being pulled from the top front of your shoulder to your elbow. Hold for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds, then hold for 30 seconds more. Switch sides and repeat.

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