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Episode 186: Injury Rehab and Brain Mapping

Video Highlights

- 30-40 times more likely to re-tear
- Study shows link to poor brain mapping
- The value of "eyes closed" training

Today, we’re going to talk about blindfolds, brain maps, and rehab.

This week I was looking at some research related to rehabilitation of the knee, and it reminded me of a concept that I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about on the blog before. So, let me talk to you about the research first, and then explain how to apply it practically.

The study that I was looking at this week involved rehabilitation of ACLs. If you’re not familiar, ACL, anterior cruciate ligament, is a ligament in the knee. It’s one of the most commonly injured ligaments in the body, particularly in sports, and you’ll hear about it all the time. This guy in the NFL had an ACL repair because it was torn, and it took him a year to rehab. Now, what we know, and have known for may years, is that if you tear an ACL … let’s say you’re a high school soccer player. You get hit, or something happens, and that is torn. If you do surgery and then go through the more traditional rehab, you are 30-40 times more likely to re-tear it if you return to that same sport.

Think about that. That is a huge injury risk. So, there’s a lot of interest around the world in how do we better rehab ACL tears. This research that we’re looking at was fantastic because, obviously at Z-Health, we have a very neurally focused approach to everything that we do. What they looked at in this particular study is, they said, “We wonder if, after a ACL tear and traditional rehabilitation, if something has happened in the brain mapping that makes people more prone to injury.”

That’s actually what they found.

Just to kind of make you think about this, I went ahead and drew this up here. If you looked at some of our prior blogs, you know that the nervous system, the way that we control movement, relies on three things: Input, Interpretation, and Output. I have a knee here. Let’s say that I’ve torn my ACL. I’m supposed to get some input, after surgery and rehab, it’s going to go up to my brain. Hopefully it’s good input. What they found in this study was that people that have had an ACL repair, when you looked at their movement strategies when they went back to playing sports, they actually relied more on their vision to tell them about their environment than the did on what’s called proprioception, or the internal sensation from the knee.

This is one of the big deals for us, because we always talk about this, that if you have an area in the body that’s been injured or is problematic, it’s highly likely that your brain’s strategies for movement have been altered. So, whenever you work with a Z-Health trainer, that’s why we look at your eyes and your vestibular system, or inner ear, look at all the joints, because we want to make sure that you’re getting great quality input, and this is most important, that your brain can trust. Because as you have better input, you can make better interpretations which ultimately leads to better and safer output, or movement.

In this study, what they did, and this is again why it struck me, because it reminded me of one of the strategies that we use, is they took these athletes, they looked at their movement capacity, and then they began retraining them by using what are called strobe goggles. Strobe goggles are goggles, Nike used to make them, there’s several other companies that make them. Basically, they’re exactly what they sound like. They’re goggles that you put on, and they create a strobe effect, which reduces the amount of visual input that you receive.

What they found was that, by beginning to train these athletes wearing strobe goggles, so maybe they’re out and they’re running sprints, or they’re doing agility drills, but they are temporarily and briefly interrupting their visual input which they’ve become dependent upon, they actually started to see improvements in knee stability and knee control. They said in this research study it’s too early to know for sure if this works, and there are ongoing studies, but this is stuff that we’ve been doing for years.

When I was five and six years old first starting in martial arts, one of the things that our teacher did is he would have us work blindfolded. He would put a blindfold on us and he would make us do forms or grappling or whatever, and it was a really interesting experience even at that age. It’s something I carried over throughout my entire athletic career, and it’s something that we use at Z-Health.

The practical application of this is pretty simple.

If you have areas of the body that you’ve had surgeries performed on, or you’ve had significant injuries, one of the things that you might want to include in your training is closing your eyes or wearing a blindfold. It’s a really simple idea, but what many people find is that when they close their eyes, they put a blindfold on, and they start doing, let’s say, just basic neck work or thoracic glides or if you’re a boxer, you start working on different punches or movements. Having your visual system removed from the movement equation increases your brain’s awareness and increases the attention that it pays to the signals coming in from the rest of the body.

Like I said, it’s a simple idea, but one of the things you may want to consider is, periodically in your week to week training, take five minutes, ten minutes. Put a blindfold on and do something simple and safe, but something that is a little bit challenging for you. Many people, whenever they go into this, they actually find that their balance is really compromised, that’s very normal. As you train, what will happen is your brain mapping for the rest of your body will improve as you reduce the dependence on the visual system. This is not appropriate for everybody, but I want you to make sure that you keep this in mind.

If you’ve been struggling, like I said, to regain stability or to rehab an area that’s been problematic, this may be a strategy that will make all the difference for you. Give this a shot. If you have any questions about it, please let me know. Thanks.

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