The Withdrawal Reflex
To navigate a changing, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous environment, our sensors need direct control over our muscle tone.
When you touch a hot iron, nerve messages race up your arm and into your spinal cord where they connect directly to the motor neurons that contract the muscles which pull your hand away from the iron, even before your brain registers that there is a problem.
Without a direct connection between your skin and your muscles, the pain warning would have had to travel all the way to your brain, be interpreted and wait for you to send messages to your arm – wasting valuable milliseconds as your hand sizzled.
If you stand on a nail, pain sensors fire causing contraction of the hamstrings and hip flexors, lifting your foot off the nail. At the same time, the antagonists are inhibited, preventing you from pushing your foot further through the nail. The sensors that detect the damage to your tissues stop you walking (and therefore prevents more damage) because they change your muscle tone.
The direct link between your skin and muscles is called a reflex. In this case, the withdrawal reflex.
You probably recognise the withdrawal reflex in the feet (standing on a nail) and hands (pulling away after touching a hotplate) but it operates throughout the body.
From the agony of hitting your thumb with a hammer to the hysterics of a child being tickled, the withdrawal reflex is always ready to prevent damage, and it does so by adjusting muscle strength, activating some muscles and inhibiting others.
The withdrawal reflex has saved your bacon many times. Every time you stood on Lego, had a splinter in your finger or sand in your eye – this reflex kept you safe or minimised the damage.
The withdrawal reflex removes you from real or potential harm.
The sensors in our skin detect more than just pain. They also react to deep pressure, light touch, vibration, hot and cold.
Tickling is the withdrawal reflex from stimulation of light touch. Notice that the withdrawal reflex occurs everywhere, not just the hands and feet.
Although it doesn’t really hurt, we would usually take a pebble out of our shoe. Our nervous system hates irritation. Our skin needs to be free of insult for us to be at peace and able to function normally. It’s not just princesses who are bothered by peas.
Notice that it’s the reflex which controls your movement, not your brain. The reflex HAS PRIORITY over your brain, which is why it’s impossible to force yourself to hold your hand on a hot iron.
If we jump off a chair, our quadriceps contracts with just enough force to stop our knees from buckling. The quadriceps muscle is stretched and instantly fires messages back to the spinal cord where it proportionally increases the power of the muscle to keep us balanced.
If, however, we land on a nail, sharp stone or broken glass, the withdrawal reflex will inhibit the quadriceps muscle, disabling the very muscle we need to avoid a fall. Then our knees will buckle and we will end up in a heap on the floor – no matter how strong we are or how often we lift weights.
When our muscles can’t react with enough power or speed to stabilise against an external force – sprains, sprains, pain and injury result. A persistent withdrawal reflex is one of the most common causes of muscle weakness and inhibition.
This is where we find most people with chronic pain and injury – addicted to painkillers, miserable and depressed – seeking endless expensive treatments and tests that leave them with useless diagnoses and no cures.
Most conditions that don’t respond to conventional or natural medicine are caused by abnormal reflexes and faulty muscle control.
The Problem with Piercings
Any input to the nervous system can, and usually will, result in a temporary change in muscle function, either inhibition or facilitation (one cannot occur without the other). Sometimes, muscle inhibition can persist and even become permanent; silently causing pain, disability and illness – and we may never even know it is happening.
There are many possible causes of persistent muscle inhibition but they all involve what we can call dysfunctional proprioception – disruption of normal proprioception, those crucial messages nerve sensors are sending back to the brain and nervous system.
Muscle inhibition can effect just one muscle, a group of muscles, or it can affect all muscles. Persistent muscle inhibition isn’t a disease in itself, but it certainly makes illness and injury more likely.
You may live for many years with muscle inhibition, and as long as you never need those inhibited muscles to work at full capacity, you may never experience acute pain or injury. You may put your tiredness down to late nights or overwork, your headaches down to stress, and your sore back down to getting old. Your doctor may even confirm your suspicions and give you some medication for it but you and your doctor are probably wrong.
Your tiredness, your headaches, and your sore back may be a result of something as simple as your earrings.
Nerve sensors in the skin are so sensitive they can feel one hair move. What would happen if someone poked you in the stomach? If you weren’t expecting it, you would flinch. That is, your stomach muscles would contract and you would fold in the middle. This is the withdrawal reflex, the same reflex that would lift your foot off the floor if you stood on a nail, or pull your hand away if you touched a hotplate.
When you are poked and your stomach muscles contract, the muscles opposite them, the back muscles, must be inhibited. As soon as the irritation from the poking has gone, the muscles will relax and return to normal resting muscle tone.
But what if the irritation never went away?
Sarah came to see me after two years of low back pain. I examined her with all the standard tests. She seemed to have strained her low back, but a simple low back strain should have healed in about six weeks. Why was hers still troublesome after two years?
I also tested the strength of her back muscles. She was completely unable to generate resistance in the muscles at the side of her low back (the quadratus lumborum). Theses muscles help us bend sideways and also twist the trunk. I knew that if I found the cause of the weakness in these muscles, then her low back would be more stable and should heal properly.
Searching for the causes of irritation to proprioception becomes easier when you know what you are looking for. In this case, Sarah had a belly piercing. The stud through the skin of her tummy acted as a permanent irritant to the skin, just like someone constantly poking her in the stomach. The stud was contracting her abdominal muscles and inhibiting her back muscles.
I asked Sarah to change the irritation from her stud by pressing it from right to left. (The direction doesn’t matter; moving it does.) This immediately restored her quadratus lumborum to normal strength. When we removed the stud, her back muscles returned to normal. While she did need one small manipulation to restore the movement of one of her vertebrae, she otherwise needed no further treatment and made a full recovery.
Experience tells me she would never have recovered with just manipulation, although, once the stud was removed, she may have been able to recover without the manipulation, given enough time and exercise.
Louise’s case was similar. When I first saw her, she was having trouble bending. Her back had ‘gone’. When she tried to touch her toes, she ended about ten centimetres from the floor. When she tried to straighten, she had to walk her hands up her thighs, as her back muscles would not support her.
Several times she was tested, and every time the same thing happened. I asked her to push her nose stud to one side. As soon as she did, she was able to bend forward and put her hand on the floor, then straighten up without hesitation. Removing the pressure on the nose stud, however, returned her to her previous best of ten centimetres from the floor.
Permanent removal of her nose stud relieved her pain immediately, and she made a full recovery with no further treatment.
While body piercing is fashionable, the irritation and muscle weakness it produces cause much pain and suffering. Remember the effect of standing on a nail or being poked in the stomach? These produced dysfunctional proprioception—contraction of certain muscles and inhibition of others. When a stud is placed in the body, that irritation remains, and so does the inhibition, living proof of the flexor withdrawal reflex.
The weakness created by the inhibition then causes bones and joints to move badly, and joints to be sprained, strained, and inflamed.
Some studs seem to have no effect, although this is probably due to our inability to detect the effect, rather than it not existing. There is no question, though, that the positioning of any stud is critical.
Many women seem to have no effect from ear piercing when the hole goes through the centre of the ear lobe. However, piercing the ear too high or too low can produce dramatic changes in body function, as the proprioceptive system senses the irritation and alters the tension of the neck muscles to try to pull away from the piercing.
Sometimes only the neck muscles are involved; other times the inhibition of the neck will disrupt the proprioceptive mechanism more widely, and the whole of the trunk or the whole of the body can become involved.
Since we are totally unaware of the ensuing inhibition, we think everything is normal. Months or years later, when we start to have headaches, or aches and pains caused by a minor car accident don’t clear up, or stiffness in our joints is X-rayed and diagnosed as osteoarthritis or spondylitis, we never think to relate it to the earrings we put in when we were younger.
Julie was fourteen when I saw her. Moody, tearful, and depressed, she had no energy and was failing at school. She was weak all over. Removing her earrings allowed her muscles to fire once again, and, with a little dietary change, she picked up her life and started to thrive.
Jewellery does not need to pierce the skin to cause irritation. Metal in contact with the skin is often sufficient to provoke the flexor withdrawal reflex and cause muscle weakness. The most common culprits are necklaces, neck chains, rings, and watches. Heavier jewellery creates more irritation and damage than finer jewellery; the type of metal matters less.
Clive, a thirty-year-old man with severe low back pain, reported that he had been suffering for more than three months. One of the things I did for him as he was lying on the table in agony was remove his heavy, gold neck chain.
After a few minutes, he was able to walk around, pain-free. While he was still standing, I placed the chain around his neck again, his knees buckled, and he screamed in pain. I took the chain off, and the pain disappeared.
He subsequently recalled how his back pain came on one week after his birthday, when his wife had given him the chain. Clive’s pain had gone away while he was on holiday for a week – he hadn’t taken the chain with him – and had been with him again since the holiday ended, three months earlier.
A sixteen-year-old male patient was devoted to football. He played in goal but had always been unable to take his own goal kicks. The week after he removed his ring and neck chain, he not only played the whole game injury-free, but he was able to kick the ball over the half-way line, something he had never done before.
John was a big man, weighing in at twenty-one stone, although he had lost eight stone already. Impressively tattooed, he was not someone to be taken lightly. In spite of his impressive presence, however, he had to walk down stairs backwards because his knees would not support him if he walked down forwards. The arthritis developing in his knees was disabling, but his weight ruled him out of knee replacement surgery. His pain and disability meant he was having trouble keeping his job.
John was a tough guy, and his tattoos, long ponytail, and four large earrings added to his image. Trouble was, his days were now being spent in bed or in front of the television because that was all he could manage. In spite of his size, his legs were about as strong as those of a five-year-old. No wonder he couldn’t walk down the stairs.
However, after I took his earrings out, he walked down the stairs forwards, though still with some pain, as his joints were already a little degenerated. As he steadily recovered over the next few weeks, his wife was amazed to see him digging the garden, playing with his grandchildren, and taking walks. He was amazed that he actually enjoyed his work more and was able to get on with his employees better.
We give jewellery so much meaning. A ring, a watch, or a chain can signify love, acceptance, belonging, duty, loyalty, and identity. These are powerful emotions. Remember, though, that chains were also used as shackles, which carry a very different meaning. Be careful about the meaning you give to ‘things’.
In my experience, many people—and not just women—would rather lose an arm than give up a piercing or piece of jewellery. In Clive’s case, above, I was grateful to his wife for not taking offence when he no longer wore the chain she gave him. She obviously realised that his health was more important.
Do you really need your jewellery? Is it so important to you that you would risk your health rather than take it off? Do your own experiment. Take your jewellery off for two weeks and see if your symptoms improve. Put it back on and see if the symptoms return. Keep doing this for as long as it takes to convince you that the effect is real. If there is no difference, then wear the jewellery.
And, if taking off your jewellery does help, there are alternatives. (See Simple Solutions below.) But, no matter what, you might still want to try leaving a watch, or a ring, or a chain at home. You may find it can be extremely liberating. Freeing yourself from the emotional dependence on these things can make you stronger and more joyful.
Remember: you don’t need to lose the emotional significance of any of the jewellery. Have it framed, keep it safe, put it above your bed or under your pillow – the significance won’t change, but you aren’t making yourself ill.
You need to get rid of all interference to be truly healthy. Unfortunately, it’s not until you have got rid of all interference and are totally well, that you will know you have reached that stage. Only then can you look back and positively identify those things that were making you ill.