Does the Lower Body Protect the Upper Body from Running Injuries?

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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running injuries

Running is one of those sports that about the age of 40 or 50, people go two different directions. Either they haven’t gotten a significant injury and they keep running or they stop running due to injury. What’s the difference between these two groups? In all honesty, we really don’t know with 100% certainty yet, but science is starting to use acoustics and vibrations to understand it all.

While we know one reason for running injuries is abnormal forces from repetitive impact motions, a new study suggests that biomechanical adjustments in the musculoskeletal system help some runners tame those forces before they reach the upper body. Let’s explore this study more in depth.

From the Pavement to the Foot to the Rest of the Body

The new study was presented in Boston at the Acoustical Society of America meeting, last month. Researchers set out to study biomechanical adaptations in runners that attempt to tame impact-induced shock that occurs when the foot strikes the pavement. This impact sends vibrations from the pavement to the foot, up through the leg, and throughout the rest of the body. They also explored a variety of running conditions. They measured the vibrational impact in a variety of locations: the third metatarsal (toe) bone, the tibial plateau (the top of the tibia), the knee joint, the hip joint, and the seventh cervical vertebra. Researchers theorized that running injuries do occur with repetitive techniques (i.e., the same running pattern causing the foot to strike the pavement the same way with every run).

The results? The neuromusculoskeletal system biomechanically adapted to the vibration at each lower level in order to restabilize the body before the vibration reached the upper levels. In other words, the lower levels biomechanically adjusted in an effort to protect the upper body from as much of the impact of vibration as possible. The rate of running speed did not change these findings.

Researchers will be performing more in-depth studies in an effort to find more effective ways to prevent running injuries.

What Are Running Injuries, and Can We Head Them Off at the Pass?

Running injuries happen, and while the lower body may be working to minimize vibrational impact on the upper body, at this point, these injuries really can occur anywhere. So let’s review a few common running injuries.

Your back can become tight and uncomfortable during or after a run. This is usually due to an irritated nerve causing the multifidus back muscles, the muscles that actively absorb shock in order to keep the bones of the back stabilized, to stop working. Muscles not designed to stabilize step in to substitute, but this can lead to muscle spasms and tightness in the back.

Kneecap pain is another common running injury; however, it’s important to understand that the source of the pain isn’t always the location of the pain itself. Oftentimes, kneecap pain occurs due to a problem rooted in the hip or even the lower back.

Ligament or tendon injuries are common with running as well. For example, sore ankles after running or walking can be a sign of ankle-ligament instability. Let’s face it, ankles are the first big joint to really take the brunt of the vibrational impact when our foot hits the pavement, and they carry the weight of our entire body, so it’s not surprising that running injuries occur in the complex ligaments that make up our ankles.

There is no guarantee that running injuries won’t happen, but we can attempt to head running injuries off at the pass by taking as many precautions as possible. For example, investing in high-quality running shoes, warming up, and changing your running patterns (e.g., running the track in different directions on alternating days) will certainly help.

The upshot? While the new study does show that the lower body may biomechanically adapt itself to protect the upper body from some level of running injuries, it doesn’t mean injuries won’t happen; it simply means you’re less likely to experience a running injury in the neck than you would in the ankle for example. However, this research looks promising as a way to decipher why some people can’t run well beyond middle age. In the meantime, you should be taking precautions to protect yourself from injuries and getting on top of the small stuff before it becomes a bigger problem.

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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