What the hell is ‘holistic’ anyway?

The term “holistic” has to be the most overused bit of jargon in the medical world.  You’ll see people touting holistic massages, holistic personal training, holistic chiropractic and I’m sure I’ve even seen a holistic hairdresser out there somewhere. But what does it actually mean?

Strictly speaking “holistic” simply refers to any technique emphasising the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. So a holistic builder would be a guy who does everything from pouring foundations to tiling the roof to landscaping the gardens – and looks out for the overlaps between the jobs – he’s the guy that makes sure that the eves don’t shade the vegie patch.

The trouble with medicine is that people tend to become specialists; cardiologists who just look at the heart, podiatrists that just look at your feet and physios who dedicate their professions to healing hands, shoulders, backs whatever. That’s not a bad thing… you don’t want your open heart surgery done by a guy who describes himself as ‘a jack of all trades’! But the problem is your body doesn’t have the same strict demarcation lines.

Take for instance a client who turned up last week: a young, fit multi-sporter who’d been suffering a bit of neck pain and left-shoulder weakness when he swam. He’d been seeing a shoulder specialist physio – and a good one at that – for about four months and wasn’t seeing any improvement.

When he dropped in to the Studio for a second opinion, I took the chance to start from the beginning with a holistic look at things. That examination turned out that his shoulder wasn’t in fact weak, but his torso was rotated, meaning it had to do a disproportionate amount of the work. The torso rotation in turn stemmed from weighting one leg more than the other, which was caused by a fused ankle – in other words the pain was in his neck, but the root of the problem lay at the opposite end of his body!

Cool huh! But it gets even more complicated. As a profession, physios are starting to realise that often the biggest influence on how an injury manifests itself, isn’t a client’s bones, muscles or tendons… but their brain.

Yep, the squishy grey stuff between your ears can have a massive influence on your recovery from an injury. For instance we now understand that your brain and central nervous system can ‘learn’ pain. Sing a tune enough times and it’ll come back easily when you want to remember it. Hit your thumb with a hammer enough times and your nervous system will remember that pain a bit more easily – sometimes so much so that it just crops up all by itself, just like that Gloria Gaynor song just seems to pop into your head on a Saturday night (okay the Gloria Gaynor thing is probably just me… but you get the idea).

That’s not to say it’s all in your head, but as we learn more about how the body and the brain works we’re starting to realise that the brain can throw some real curveballs that a health practitioner that’s looking entirely below the neck will miss.

So there you have it, that’s holism for you. On the whole it’s a good thing… even if the term is a little overused.

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