Healthy Bones, Joints & Muscles

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

The human musculoskeletal system not only makes it possible for us to move, it provides protective and stable framework for our organs. Comprising approximately 70% of the body’s mass, the musculoskeletal system includes over 200 bones and 600 muscles, in addition to various joints and other connective tissues such as tendons, cartilage, and collagen.

We often take the amazing agility and efficiency with which we move through life for granted, that is, until our mobility is somehow limited. Disorders of the joints, bones, or muscles, ranging from pain to autoimmune diseases or cancer, can significantly interfere with daily living. Impaired movement might also affect our resolve, if not ability, to maintain overall health through healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise and mind/body practices, and even getting to the grocery store or farmers’ market to purchase nutritious foods.

How to Maintain Musculoskeletal Health

Maintaining musculoskeletal health involves obtaining the right balance of vitamins and minerals, adequate nutrition and exercise, stress management, and very importantly, stretching. Preventing or reducing  inflammation, which contributes to so many musculoskeletal and other bodily complications, should definitely top the musculoskeletal health list.

The Skeleton

As relatively stable yet continually changing connective tissues, bones are multifunctional. They provide bodily foundation, protect the internal organs, and house bone marrow and other important substances such as calcium. Calcium is responsible for bone calcification, or hardening. Within bone marrow, red blood cells and stem cells form.

The Muscles

Of the three types of muscles in the human body, skeletal and smooth muscles are part of the musculoskeletal system. The third type, the cardiac muscle of the heart, is not. With the exception of cardiac muscle, all striated muscles are under voluntary control, while non-striated, or smooth muscles are involuntary. Organized around bones and joints, skeletal muscles enable movement. Smooth muscles line viscera, or the tubes and organs within our bodies, such as the intestines and blood vessels.

The Joints

Joints describe structures at the junction of two or more bones. Joints may be immobile, such as those in the skull, or may move to enhance body mobility, like the knee and elbow joints. Joint structure determines joint mobility. A ball and socket joint within the shoulder, for example, permits inward and outward rotation, as well as forward, backward, and sideways movements by the arms. In contrast, the hinge joints of the fingers or knees are limited to bending and straightening movements. Joints are lined with synovial tissue, which generates synovial fluid to nourish cartilage and reduce friction between joints.

Connective Tissues

Intermediaries which often remain unnoticed until injured, connective tissues are indispensable for bodily form and function. These fibrous tissues help connect and hold the organs in place, structure bones and blood vessel walls, attach together muscles and bones, and replace injured tissues. A structural protein found throughout the body, collagen is one of the main components of connective tissues like cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (a soft tissue located throughout the body), in addition to the skin. Collagen helps preserve the integrity of other bodily tissues it comes into contact with.

While tendons connect muscles and bones, ligaments attach bones together and surround the joints. Tendons are dense strands of connective tissue composed of collagen, elastin, and proteoglycans (which make a substance resistant). Their spring-like function helps stabilize the body and conserve energy. Tendons are cushioned by bursas, or underlying sacs filled with fluid, which also serve to protect bones and ligaments. Ligaments are fibrous cords containing collagen and elastin which provide joints strength and stability and limit their movement. Tough, smooth, and resilient, cartilage covers the ends of bones to prevent friction between bones at the joints. Composed of collagen, proteoglycans and water, cartilage can break down and possibly lead to osteoarthritis of the affected joints and related bone ailments. Maintaining structural integrity of these connective tissues can mean the difference between musculoskeletal illness and wellness.

Musculoskeletal Conditions

Many of us have experienced sports or exercise-related injuries like sprains, strains, dislocation and fractures of bones, and tears of ligaments, tendons, or muscles. These types of traumas, as well as muscle cramps and tendinitis (inflamed tendon) account for most musculoskeletal problems among young adults. Other musculoskeletal afflictions more commonly associated with aging include various forms of arthritis, infections, sarcopenia (muscle loss), osteoporosis, tumors, genetic disorders, hormonal abnormalities, and autoimmune disorders, among other conditions.

People may not seek treatment for gradual, degenerative musculoskeletal conditions until the pain becomes too great if they believe that such conditions are a natural consequence of aging. With conviction than suffering from such conditions is not inevitable, effective management, if not prevention, of them through targeted nutritional supports, stress management, diet, and additional lifestyle habits is entirely possible. Exercise is especially important for musculoskeletal health. When performed regularly and in moderation, it can help preserve and protect joints, strengthen muscles, increase flexibility, promote weight maintenance or loss, and enhance sleep quality. Activities such as yoga, stretching, and Pilates are especially helpful to preserve and support musculoskeletal health.

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