It’s always an interesting process to explain why muscles ‘turn off’ and become inhibited to someone for the first time, especially in situations that seem to be far more nonsensical like toe flexors turning off the neck flexors. Once the mechanisms are explained, it makes quite a lot of sense, but especially for these more confusing relationships NKT can look like a lot of ‘voodoo witch magic,’ which I tend to agree with (albeit with more affection than skepticism!). While I explain it to other practitioners with a lot more detail and fewer metaphors than with my patients, I feel like for those times when a good full explanation is asked for or appropriate these are the points I like to go over.

While it is hard to remember and keep in mind, we are the same biological machines that we have been for thousands of years and in many ways this can be either miraculously in our favor or a considerable draw back, mostly the latter in modern times some might say. If you were wandering the woods 10,000 years ago and came across a mother bear with her cubs, you would find yourself without a thought dropping what you were doing and sprinting in the opposite direction. You can hear the bear chasing after you and in your mad dash you roll your ankle, spraining it. It’s likely you didn’t even notice; your brain kept you going at full speed because if you don’t, you won’t likely survive. As one muscle is damaged you push on, with it either continuing to act and damaging itself further despite the injury, or another muscle stepping in to take over the job on the spot.

On this particular day you get away from the bear, it goes back to its cubs, and a bit later once things have calmed down you notice the injury. There is no real such thing as medicine, certainly not as we know it now, and there will be little to no rest time. To stop moving is to die from starvation, dehydration, exposure, or other predators. The body slots a different muscle(s) in to carry out the responsibilities of the now injured tissue so that you can keep going to forage, hunt, and escape danger. Because you don’t get to rest, as amazing as the body is at healing, if it was severe to any real degree the likelihood is that whatever compensation the body had to take to keep you moving is going to have to in large part stay there permanently as tomorrow you get to hunt…forage…and run from predators or die. Movement is mandatory for life.

Fast forward to today: we now have plenty of rest time for most injuries and medical care of various degrees of effectiveness, but medical care nonetheless. Your body doesn’t know any better, however, after two million years of the same type of existence day in day out; so when you roll your ankle or damage a joint these incidents can leave a profound and lasting impression on the strategies your brain has created for moving and keeping the body stable and safe. It is the same as how we have numerous diseases from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and cancer that biologically the body is set up to prevent and reverse but because we are still the same mechanical sack of chemicals with only the same solutions to old problems, we are not equipped to handle the way we live today (desk jobs and our modern food like products are really only a construct of the last 50 years for most of the worlds ‘modern’ population). With our food we eat veritable feasts at every meal compared to our two million year ancestral existence, which is filled with virtually nothing but processed forms of foods we never had in the first place. In a perpetual Spring things go wrong.

Similarly today we live a very alien lifestyle when it comes to our movement. Sitting is in large part a new invention, and yet the majority of us do it for most of the day. We also spend the day interacting with a computer, phone, or steering wheel, and the few activities we do are not dynamic, but instead are endlessly repetitive. This stress and strain gives us micro-injuries, numerous weaknesses and a propensity for significant injury, let alone an inability to perform even the more basic ambulatory tasks at any age (How many of you see 8 year olds with severe unstable valgus and general upper/lower cross presentation).

So with this extended background story over, where does this leave us today? Our bodies today are generally underused, but are specifically over used and so we are ripe for injuries and conditions that we mostly don’t notice until we get older because we hardly move each day. Because we are still the same old biological machines that haven’t had a chance to change how we adapt to more modern conditions, when some kind of injury or other event occurs the body compensates as it should but often times doesn’t slot back into the previous intended and ideal movement strategy once the injury is healed.

What, then, is the solution? With Neurokinetic Therapy® we are able to track down exactly what is compensating for the muscles that are now turned off. This means both the tissues that are working for the muscle that has been off (my typical metaphor is tracking down the coworkers that have been standing in for you while you’ve been home sick) as well as the tissues that are directly turning off the muscle (which aren’t always the same thing as the tissue(s) that have been working for it). We are then able to relax these over-active (facilitated) muscles and show the brain that the muscle that it had down-regulated (inhibited) is perfectly able and appropriate to do its job and whatever injury existed is now gone. As we retrain this new tool back into it’s appropriate place in our repertoire of motor patterns and strategies, while the inhibited muscle gains back any strength or endurance it lost, the brain gains more confidence in its ability as a tool and calls on it regularly once more as appropriate, barring any further need to turn it back off (an obviously important thing to avoid!).

We’ve now quite thoroughly gone through the ‘why,’ but this hardly casts off the confused and skeptical looks I get when talking about such odd sounding relationships as the toes to neck or hip flexors, the jaw to the stomach, or even the muscles of the eyes to so many other parts of the body (not that I know how to fix this yet sadly). So for these skeptics, and those of you who are just feeling nerdy enough to want to know more, there are a few specific reasons and methods for inhibition I like to explain, though this may not be an exhaustive list by any manner…granted I am editing this now and am tempted to go over some outside our typical box aspects of it as well…we shall see.

The simplest mechanism is one like the sprained ankle, or some other damage to a particular muscle or tendon. When it’s injured, it obviously can’t heal if it’s allowed to tug on the tear over and over. As a solution, another muscle(s) or tissue(s) is called in to take over for whatever responsibilities the injured tissue had. There are very few roles in the body that cannot be done at least to some degree by more than one muscle or tissue. This doesn’t mean it can do it well, but it can get functions done, and remember: functions are what keep us alive. That said protecting a tissue or joint does occasionally result in an inability to carry out a specific function, the easiest example being a frozen shoulder.

A step more complicated is when your brain specifically doesn’t want something moved in a certain way, whether it is because of a broken bone or another issue we haven’t detailed yet. Instead of a muscle being ‘inhibited’ by its synergists (those muscles that normally would help it out, but instead are taking over and not letting it work), its antagonist (it’s functional opposite) can easily stop it from working. However, as others have said, such as Thomas Wells, that the antagonist is usually the actual culprit as the top hierarchical inhibitor for any given tissue. I would posit that one possible reason why this is the case is that while the brain will choose synergists to try to carry out the same functions as tissues it is choosing to inhibit (if allowing these synergists to function won’t counter the stability strategy it is trying to carry out), by activating an antagonist, even if eccentrically, it can harness the powerful mechanism of reciprocal inhibition which can more fully and directly inhibit the target muscle and work to nullify even automatic reactionary activations such as those we see in such actions as walking. This is where muscle atrophy due to inhibition becomes more possible.

Whether it is a synergist or an antagonist, acute injuries and the ‘memory’ of their occurrence is a strong reason for something to be inhibited. I was present at a case where a woman had her pubic symphysis (pubic bone, which is really the where the two hip bones connect in the front, so it’s a closed joint) separated during giving birth. This ended up being the solution to why her femoral adductors (the muscles that draw the legs in towards each other) were completely off. If they had been allowed to contract it would have kept separating the pubic symphysis (which they connect alongside) and it never would have healed. If the hips can’t be used or stressed the human body can’t move, so it’s a big deal! Broken bones or torn ligaments and tissues elsewhere in the body can be the same; if your ulna is fractured or your ACL is ruptured the muscles around it certainly aren’t going to want to put tension on the area!

spiral line

Where things start getting a lot more complicated and sound outlandish or confusing is when one muscle has a functional relationship to another but is relatively far away anatomically. The toe flexors (the muscles that curl the toes) and the neck flexors (muscles in the front of the neck) is a good example which is commonly seen in people who wear flip flops (many non-functioning necks during summer!). If you stand up right now and intentionally lean forward enough that your center of balance is off and you start falling, one of the first things you do is jam your toes into the ground to ‘break’ your forward momentum. Should you start falling backwards the toes will lift up for the same reason. Another response is to falling forward is to lean the neck back, which uses the neck extensors (muscles in the back of the neck). When we constantly curl the toes and not just for when we walk (the toes push off a bit to help propel us, but only for a brief moment at a time) the brain starts getting the notion that we might be falling forward and the neck extensors can turn on more than they should, and all the time. When the neck extensors are over facilitated they turn off the neck flexors (one side has to relax when the other is on, or it can’t do its job; we call this reciprocal inhibition). Still with me? This is definitely a bit more complicated but explains how something that seems like it has little to do with another muscle or its function can cause an inhibition.

A similarly indirect, but very common, reason for inhibition is when the body doesn’t feel stable around a joint, or across larger sections of the body, it will take drastic measures as needed to feel protected. The body would rather a joint or an area around exposed organs have a smaller range of motion, than risk something which is overly mobile causing a permanent injury. This is one of the major reasons that muscles get tight, people get shorter, and so many of us end up feeling compressed. One of the most common compensation is to tighten muscles that will limit the range of motion in a joint, or even compress a joint. The spine very commonly gets compressed, which can lead to many problems, though if you’ve ever squatted down and felt a grinding in your hip then you know what hip compression feels like. Almost anyone who has had a knee surgery or significant knee injury will have an over-active popliteus (a muscle on the back of the knee which bends it), which can act to keep the knee from extending all the way in an attempt to protect the knee joint. If major stabilizing muscles don’t work, such as the abdominal muscles, or other vital core musculature, the body will react globally to try to feel secure enough for movement.

So the last of the direct reasons I will discuss today is one that can combine with or is interrelated with some of those we’ve already covered so far. One of the ways the body is put together, which determines how the body functions is explained and investigated and described by Thomas Myers and is called Anatomy Trains. An anatomy train is a strip or track of muscle and other tissue that mechanically lay in a line that conveys tension in a similar way as a cable might. In dissection a single anatomy train can be removed as one contiguous and continuous string, such as the superficial front line which goes from the tops of your toes all the way up to your neck in one solid piece. It can be useful to think of it like the cable that goes between posts on the side of the highway. The cable stops off at each one, but carries tension throughout. If one section of the cable should slacken, the other will tighten up to compensate, or sometimes in the opposite direction, so that the body feels adequate stability across this line. I know that this isn’t actually how highway side cables work, but work with me here!


Within these lines muscles can become facilitated or inhibited because of their role in that line or in an opposing one to establish stability, protect an injury, or alter posture to complete a function. There are many specific common dysfunctions and compensations that can come out of this, and the above mechanisms of inhibition, but the list is still incredibly long when it comes to what is specifically causing what, and tracking down why.

There are two other general mechanisms I’d like to describe which have MANY more possibilities and facets than I will describe here, but being aware of them is important for when you feel like you’re at a dead end and just can’t explain what you’re seeing. The first most of you will be familiar with. More than just physically girding an unstable joint or region of the body, emotional trauma can cause the body to ‘guard’ an area, which can effectively lock it down and load up all kinds of compensations and inhibitions, including cascading problems as wide as autonomic disruption (common actually, given the locations we often guard). Whether the emotional guarding is around an injury that occurred, the symptomatic site of a chronic physical issue, or even an emotional trauma which had no physical basis, the guarding can a very strong inhibitor/facilitator (the very tip top of the causal hierarchy actually).

Two common regions are around the stomach/diaphragm, and the jaw/neck. Because we once were quadrupeds the genitals/groin, stomach and neck were all protected by simple having it facing the ground. Now we are upright and it’s all exposed. Half of the fight or flight startle response is to anteriorally translate the head and medially rotate the arms and hands to cover these regions for protection. When we feel insecure, whether physically, or because we’ve been attacked, abused, or are simply not feeling confident (among a myriad of other reasons) the region from the pubic symphysis to the diaphragm can become severely dysfunctional. To avoid level 2+ material in any significant detail, suffice it to say an emotional guarding messing with breathing patterns and the diaphragm can cause autonomic chaos for the entire body. This area tends to be the center of vulnerability and ‘hurt’, limbically speaking.

The jaw, because of its seat along the top of the deep front line can cause a lot of stability for the core and make us feel more powerful whether it’s for an action or for protection and so anger and emotional action and protectiveness can be seated here, again speaking limbically. Limbic issues vary person to person and trauma to trauma, but with your knowledge of NKT the implications should be apparent. These issues will need to be handled by an appropriate intuitive bodyworker or similar professional (I like intuitive bodyworkers as they can deal with the emotional trauma at the site of its physical manifestation and separate it from the motor patterns involved).

Secondly/lastly, some of you will be familiar with applied kinesiology. I’m a diehard skeptic but my mentor described it in just the right way that makes a lot of sense in the NKT neuromuscular frame of mind, which made all the difference. Within this, just like muscles and other soft tissues can affect each other negatively in facilitation/inhibition relationships, the same can be true of these tissues and the body’s organs. It all comes down to signals and mixed intentions. For an example, when your body is a bit low on hydration, even to a point before you feel thirst, your kidneys obviously will not be running overdrive just for normal water processing. As a result, or rather a direct cause, the brain will send less of the appropriate signal to the kidneys and so it will ‘work’ less.

However, what else is innervated by the nerve that connects to the kidneys? The psoas. When less signal goes to the kidneys, less signal goes to the psoas. I have had non-functioning psoas before that I couldn’t turn on and with a few sips of water and some water held in the mouth, the psoas came back online, and without informing the patient what was going on. We are covered by prioprioceptive nerves and just as the digestive system doesn’t deal with unexpected house guests, neither do the kidneys. When water is sensed in the mouth and beyond, the word gets around through the CNS to the kidneys that it may want to get going before the water ever arrives. Thus, a kidney can down-regulate a psoas and to some degree the reverse may be possible as well. You’d think the body would be able to differentiate, but for signals like these…the proof is in the pudding (or at least the manual muscle test).

This is one simple example, and one I use in my own practice (no one gets a session from me without hydration beforehand), but the implications and situations are just as diverse as any muscle/soft tissue to tissue relationship in NKT. An injury, an emotional trauma, or an under-function along a nerve line or a functional relationship can cause havoc among the ideal functioning of both soft tissues and organs themselves, and between them.

Filed under: The Practitioners Corner

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