If you follow me on social media, you know I've been doing 80 Day Obsession, a workout program I'm streaming from Beachbody on Demand.
Today is Day 52 of the program, and to say it's been a challenge would be an understatement. The workout is a combination of cardio and strength moves designed to deliver dramatic results. In today's workout, I did 88 pushups and that was the easiest part. It's brutal!
But I'm about six months away from my 50th birthday, and because I've pushed my body further than I ever thought possible, I can proudly say that I'm the fittest, strongest and happiest I've ever been in my life.
However, until I started making serious modifications to the moves last week, my knees were not happy. Not amused or entertained and certainly not delighted. They were pissed the eff off.
They ached and they popped and the crunching noise they started making a few years ago when I climbed stairs had become disturbingly audible. Despite Google searches reassuring me that noise was nothing to worry about, I was still worried.
I've had sore knees and back pain as long as I can remember. I always blamed it on the rheumatoid arthritis attacks I had as a kid and figured my knees turned inward and I walked with my feet splayed out because my legs were just put together wrong. Bad genetics, I figured.
It turns out, the origin of both my back and knee pain probably are genetic. As in autism.
Tosh's dad was the first to introduce me to the possibility that my back and knee pain weren't a skeletal problem, but a muscular one. My hip flexors were tight and shortened, he explained, probably because as a writer, I spent most of the day in an office chair.
The hip flexors attach at the top at the lower back, so they were pulling on my spine, giving me lower back pain and acute subluxation of the spine. At the bottom, they attach to my femur in my inner thigh, above the knee. This was why my knees turned inward.
Tight hip flexors also gave me a severe anterior pelvic tilt, which prevented my glutes and hamstrings from firing. When I walk, I don't push myself forward with those muscles like I should. Instead, I pull myself along from the front of my legs, using those already tight hip flexors and my quadriceps.
I thought this was totally random. Then I started noticing something.
I follow a lot of other autism parents on social media. They post a lot of photos and videos of their kids. Almost ever single one of them who are teenagers or older walk the same way I do, with their feet turned out. The more severe the autism, the more severe the improper gait, which in the medical world is called "duck feet."
Many of us are born with our feet turned inward or outward, which doctors refer to as torsional deformity. It happens as we develop in the womb. and in most people, the body corrects itself within the first few years of our life.
But if you don't develop properly, with a nervous system that sends accurate sensory information to the brain, the condition doesn't correct itself.
That's where the autism part comes in. The severe lack of coordination most kids with autism have
is the result of the body not properly communicating with the brain. It's the central nervous system failing to integrate information from proprioception and other senses to create a cohesive message of where the body is in space, how it's moving and how it accelerates or stops.
Over time, after years of the glutes and hamstring muscles not firing, those muscles can atrophy leaving our knee and ankle joints unsupported. Then your connective tissue in those joints wear down faster than they should (hello, crunching noise) and eventually, you need surgery and/or joint replacement.
The good news is that with physical therapy that includes stretches, massage and strengthening exercises, the condition can be relieved significantly. I've been working on it for 10 years now, on and off, with increasing success.
However, as my current workout so painfully reminded me, I'm still a work in progress.
And if that wasn't bad enough, there's another lovely autism symptom that exacerbates the problem: anxiety.
You see, those hip flexors are the muscles that pull us into a fetal position. So when your brain is stuck in fight or flight mode, and for people with autism, that's pretty much all the ding dang time, it sends a constant signal to the hip flexors to contract.
That's probably why stress is such a factor in people who suffer from lower back pain. It's not so much the desk chair that's killing your back - it's the job itself.
If you suffer from lower back pain and bad knees, and walk like a duck, and suspect you're in the autism spectrum, this might be a huge lightbulb moment for you. And if your child has a duck walk gait and complains that their knees hurt, consider both physical therapy and protocols to reduce the inflammation in their brains that causes autism-related anxiety.
It's important to note that you must address autism-related inflammation first, because it puts the central nervous system in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. When that happens, the nervous system can't develop, which is a big part of the reason kids with autism don't develop properly. So if you try physical therapy without treating the brain, you're wasting your time. And while you're at it, consider chiropractic medicine. Spinal misalignment can also cause a fight-or-flight state and a chiropractor who specializes in sport medicine can also recommend exercises and stretches that can help. Dr. Chris Boman, our chiropractor, specializes in special needs children and has more information on the role of the spine in autism here.
If you'd like me to follow up with a post on specific stretches and exercises that can help, and/or more on brain inflammation and autism, please comment below!
Heather Anderson is a blissfully happy autism mom and lover of life in Southern California who is on a mission to help autism parents rediscover their happy place.
Please join me on this beautiful autism journey. The Autism Oasis is a fun, supportive and educational community where your personal development is just as important as your children's. You are more than just a caregiver!