The term “muscle memory” is familiar, but I think “joint memory” also exists. Muscle memory refers to engrained changes in the muscle as well as in the brain. Muscle and joint memory are often inextricably linked; for instance, when repeating pull-ups, both get habituated to that pattern.
However, what I want to highlight is the positional aspect of joints versus the pattern aspect. Whether it’s due to lifestyle, an event, or obvious injury, an altered resting position can be established for a joint. In the face of irreconcilable injury, this demonstrates the body’s resilience, as the body accommodates, creating a new normal. (Think of the historical images of a new acetabulum being formed due to a fractured hip.)
Subtler changes are more likely. If your neck always looks down, it makes sense that subtle changes are occurring at the joint level (not the obvious manifestation of "horns" written about in the news recently). If you have a fall jarring your low back that resolves on its own with time, it’s possible you have altered joint alignment. (That’s why having an expert check your musculoskeletal system after an injury is important if you want to ensure things are working normally, even in the absence of pain.)
This phenomenon does not preclude resolution of this positioning or of symptoms. But when I encounter patients who have had longstanding symptoms, it enters my mind that their joints may be accustomed to positions that are not purely anatomical. If a patient has had a subtle lumbar shift for 20 years, doesn’t it make sense the joints are accustomed to that position?
Put simply, if a joint problem has been there for a long time, once fixed, I find patients need to be more on top of motion checks ad infinitum to ensure the joint stays fixed and doesn’t “remember” its old ways. For short-term problems in which the joint has only been impacted for weeks/months, patients can usually get away with less in terms of lifetime prevention strategies. -- Laura
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