Car or Driver

This morning, the driver in front of me was clearly texting. In fact, at times she seemed so distracted I thought she might have been blogging. I’m amazed at how much driving while texting influences attention and motor control. Swerving into oncoming traffic seemed to be her specialty, but missing stop lights ran a close second.

Imagine if an officer stopped this woman and began inspecting her car for defects. Her tires might be a bit out of alignment. That could explain the swerving. She didn’t stop at that light so her brakes might be a problem too. These are all possible reasons to explain her erratic driving behavior. But of course we all know better. The issue was not with the car, but the driver.

This had me thinking about how we assess and manage so-called aberrant movement patterns in the clinic or gym. A student physical therapist and I were watching a patient who was performing a standing squat. The student observed that the excessive internal rotation of the patient’s leg was due to a “weak hip abductor”, and subsequently began recommending strengthening exercises. After a brief discussion of motor control behavior, we took a different approach by simply showing the patient how to perform the movement without the internal rotation.

It was amazing how much “stronger” she became in 30 seconds! Not only did the squat look better after the instruction, the patient continued to do well despite an increase in load. Weak muscles should have gone the other way, with movement deteriorating under fatigue. The issue was not with the muscle, but the nervous system controlling them.

I thought this was a small but important example of where we often go wrong with our patient’s or athletes. We are much better prepared to address problems with the joints, muscles, and bones (the car) than deal with the integrated nervous system that runs the show (the driver).

Rotating the tires and keeping the brakes in shape are good ideas for a healthy car, but they don’t explain most automobile accidents. Similarly, keeping healthy muscles and joints is a great idea, but it rarely explains much of the movement we see from our patients or athletes.

Dig deeper and you’ll often find it’s more driver and less car.

About Roderick Henderson, PT, ScD

I am a board-certified orthopedic physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist with a passion for delving deeper into our understanding of movement and how it affects our lives.

Posted on March 7, 2011, in editorial, motor control, neuroscience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Just to stir the pot… “strengthening” exercises can be helpful too. Although “strengthening” might not really and truly be happening, what is happening is an increased awareness in the brain of that particular muscle functioning. And, it seems that the more the “strengthening” exercise is somewhat similar to an activity that occurs in natural function, there is probably greater carryover into the natural function where in time, viola, a better movement pattern happens with little conscious effort.

    • Roderick Henderson, PT, OCS

      Always appreciate the comments SJ. You aren’t stirring the pot at all.

      I am a strong advocate for resistance training (strength coach for 16 years now!), but there seems to be a disconnect about how it fits into the process. Your point about increased awareness and less conscious effort is dead on. We can call it strength training but I think that misses the boat within a much larger context of motor control. Strengthening narrows focus on issues that would benefit from a much more encompassing perspective on movement.

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