Generally speaking, when we are talking about the nervous system, we are referring to the information highway that governs all of the other functions and systems of the body. It is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves and receptors. Often times we will refer to the information traveling through the nervous system as the “software” component of the human machine, while things like muscles, bones, and connective tissues can be thought of as the “hardware.” While both are vital components of the human machine, the software usually is a more important driver in what determines our experiences of pain or movement dysfunction.

Before we really dive in, watch this video. Pain scientist Lorimer Moseley does a great job explaining how the nervous system governs our experiences of pain. (The video is 15 minutes long, but I recommend watching the whole thing if you have the time.):

If you didn’t watch the video, here are the key points:

  1. Nervous system receives input from inside the body (interoception) and outside the body (exteroception)
  2. This information is then sent to the spinal cord and brain

  3. Brain processes information

  4. Brain creates a response which travels back through the nervous system.

  5. An output is generated in the organs, glands, and muscles.

This output is typically either to upregulate or downregulate glandular production (which will affect chemical processes throughout the body), upregulate or downregulate organ function, and to facilitate or inhibit muscles (which will largely dictate mobility, stability, and overall movement capacity). This not only has implications on our experience of pain, but it can also be extrapolated to movement.

Pain and movement dysfunction are primarily dependent on the type and intensity of the input we receive, and how the brain processes this input. These concepts have huge implications from both a pain and performance perspective, and thus should be at the core of what drives our training and therapeutic approaches.

We should strive to create environments, both externally and internally, that allow for our brain and nervous system to operate as optimally as possible. Our brain is always receiving input, whether we are walking along the beach, performing a high intensity workout, or sitting at our desks working on spreadsheets or answering emails. Information is being received and processed by our nervous system constantly. Whatever you spend your time doing or not doing, you will adapt to the stimulus you are most often receiving.

In order to best maintain our health and well-being, we want to make sure to give our bodies appropriate amounts of various stimuli. The better and more often you move, the healthier you eat, the better you sleep, manage stress, engage in self care, and educate yourself, the better you will adapt to your environment, and the less likely you are to experience negative symptoms like pain, tightness, or a limited movement capacity.

From a movement perspective, if we live predominantly sedentary lifestyles, our nervous system will never learn how to adapt to various inputs like the contraction of muscles, movement of joints, or learning and improving coordinated movement patterns. If you don’t move regularly and in ways that promote continual optimal adaptations like increasing mobility and strength, you will inevitably lose your ability to move well. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

On the other end of the spectrum, if we constantly abuse ourselves with training protocols that are not appropriate for us (too intense, too frequent, poor technique, etc.), often times we end up compensating in ways that create excessive muscle tightness, limited joint mobility, tissue damage, neurological disorganization, and inevitably musculoskeletal pain. Pain or limited movement are usually outputs created by the brain in order to protect us. 

The takeaway from all of this is that if we want to address pain and movement dysfunction as effectively and efficiently as possible, we must optimize our neurology. How do we do this? In part 2, we will dive into some specific examples of how to optimize our neurology, both in a clinical setting as well as what we can do from a self-care perspective. Stay tuned...