Training the Brain - by Physiotherapist Cody Vandommele

Ever find yourself getting sore for no particular reason? You’re not alone. I hear this a lot working as a physiotherapist. Many patients I see, report pain without a mechanism of injury (i.e. impact, fall, etc..). People will attribute these pains to age, “wear and tear”, poor posture and repetitive tasks but ultimately what it comes down to is poor movement patterns. Movement patterns are simply the way your muscles work together to produce a movement.

I find it helpful to relate the human body to a computer. Like a computer we have hardware, these are the physical parts; the bones, ligaments and muscles that hold us together. We also have a software, this is the nervous system. This system includes our brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. Every time we move, a signal is sent from the brain to the peripheral nerves which activates our muscles. Top save processing time, our brains sends a motor pattern of signals instead of individualized signals to each muscle. This motor pattern outlines which muscles should fire and coordinates their firing sequence. As an example, grabbing a glass of water requires our core muscles to stabilize our trunk to hold us up against gravity, our shoulder flexors to reach our arm forward, our triceps to extend the elbow, our wrist extensors put our hand into position to grab the cup and our finger flexors to grip the cup. All of that and more just to grab a glass of water.

Returning to the computer analogy, motor patterns can be thought of as the output of our software (i.e. nervous system). Input, is comprised of sensory information. This includes but not limited to vision, hearing, taste, smell, temperature, touch, pressure, vibration, body awareness and pain. Our bodies are continuously collecting sensory information from internal and external sources and delivering it to our brains for interpretation. Furthermore, each of these senses has the ability to influence outgoing motor patterns, especially pain. When there is a noxious stimulus (i.e. a pain receptor becomes activated), the body will compensate and alter movement patterns in a way to minimize pain. As an example, let’s say you wake up with a stiff neck which makes turning to the left painful. To minimize pain and make left rotation easier, you slightly elevate your left shoulder. Depending on how severe the neck pain was, you may repeat this altered movement pattern for some time. Eventually the neck pain will subside but in this time, you have trained your shoulder to act a certain way in order to compensate for the former neck pain. Down the road, your shoulder may develop an injury without a direct mechanism. This is one example but these compensations occur everywhere in the body all the time. It is why proper rehabilitation of old injuries is crucial in preventing new ones. Ultimately, motor patterns involve a number of muscles in a coordinated sequence. If that sequence is altered consistently through compensation it can lead to muscle imbalances and potential injury over time.

Everyone has muscle imbalances but, not everyone has pain. So, when do muscle imbalances lead to pain? Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. It is a warning signal to the brain that there is a problem. However, pain does not tell you what the problem is. As a physiotherapist, I work to identify painful & dysfunctional movement patterns and analyze them to determine which muscles are “working too hard” and which muscles are being “not firing”. Through a combination of movement assessment (SFMA; selective functional movement assessment) and manual muscle testing (NKT; Neurokinetic Therapy) I am able to identify specific relationships or pairings between overworking and underworking muscle groups within a movement pattern. Once identified, treatment becomes simple; stretch or release overworking muscles and activate underworking muscles. This reprograms the dysfunctional and painful motor patterns and with repetition creates lasting change in movement efficiency.

To summarize, our brain is responsible the for the coordinated movements that our muscles make. Our brain also uses sensory information to guide these movement patterns. Pain can change the way we move leading to compensations and muscle imbalances. These muscle imbalances can lead to poor/dysfunctional movement patterns causing seemingly unrelated injuries. To relieve pain and correct muscle imbalance, it is important to identify specific muscle relationships and correct the dysfunctional pattern. We must repeat this new pattern for our software to learn it, thereby reducing pain and minimizing risk of future injury.

If you are pain, want to be proactive about your muscles imbalances or are interested in learning more, please contact us at us at 905-937-7908 or

Cody Vandommele