When we talk about a joint being in a “neutral” position, we’re referring to the point in the midrange of the joint where there is the least amount of support from the ligaments and other non-muscular tissues around the joint. In this position, the small, deep muscles around the joint are in the best position to control the movement at the joint’s axis. Why is this important? Because in neutral position, stress to the joint is minimized, which helps the body continue to function well over time.
To fully explain how neutral joint position works and why it’s important, we need to delve deeper into a related topic: the types of muscles that support our musculoskeletal system. In our body, we have local stabilizer muscles, global stabilizer muscles, and global mobilizer muscles. The local stabilizers are deep and close to a joint’s axis of rotation. They keep our bones in the right place at the right time. These deep muscles work to keep our joints aligned so that the bigger muscles don’t take over and pull our joints out of position. Global stabilizing muscles are bigger, stronger muscles that cross multiple joints. These muscles are responsible for moving our limbs and trunk. Global stabilizers act as both stabilizers (the muscles that stabilize one joint so that movement may be performed in another joint) and mobilizers (the muscles responsible for the movement itself).
Stabilizers help to support our joints, and they work best when the joint is in a neutral position. When stabilizers are working correctly, they contract at only 25 percent of their maximum contraction. Using our stabilizers correctly helps us to avoid over-tightening or “gripping” our big, strong muscles. Gripping causes joint compression and can pull the joint out the correct alignment, so it’s important to maintain a neutral joint position in order to help these stabilizing muscles do their job. Not doing so can often lead to pain in the low back or pelvis. We see this at the clinic all the time. For instance, when a patient has previously been told to “flatten” their low back, they may attempt to keep themselves in a better position by holding the muscles in their butt tight. When they’re gripping these big muscles, they are not letting those deep stabilizing muscles do their job, which keeps the body from functioning at its best.
So next time you are sitting at work, standing at your counter or exercising, take a moment to think about those deep stabilizers that gently support you as you move. Pay attention to whether you have gripping in other parts of your body. If so, try to release the tension and keep your body in that neutral position!
By Patricia Staszak, PT