Disuse syndrome describes the effects on the nerves, muscles, skeleton and the psychological state when an individual opts for an inactive lifestyle. The concept of disuse syndrome emerged in 1984 and, since that time, has received much attention in relation to back pain problems, chronic pain disorders and other illnesses, be it physical or mental. It tends to be overlooked frequently, as it’s effects are cumulative and not immediately apparent, and is coined by some as “the base of much human ill-being.” Disuse syndrome is caused by physical inactivity and is fostered by our sedentary society.

So, what happens to your body?

This disuse of our bodies leads to a deterioration of many body functions.
There are several physical consequences from disuse. These occur in many body systems, most notably those of the muscles and skeleton, cardiovascular, blood components, the gastrointestinal system, the endocrine systems, and the nervous system. For instance, consider the following:

In the musculoskeletal system, disuse of muscles can rapidly lead to atrophy and muscle wasting. The musculoskeletal system follows the theory of Wolff’s Law, which states that tissues change in their internal structure, depending on what form and function they are exposed to. For instance; subjecting a muscle to an increase in power output (weight training) causes it to adapt, leading to growth and increased strength within that tissue. On the contrary, Wolff’s law also stipulates if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Movement in the spine is paramount to a healthy body too. Forget about general lower back and neck pain. If the spinal column itself doesn’t move, that too is a recipe for disaster. The power house of the body is the brain and the nervous system which is encased in the brain and the bony support system of the spine. Nerve function to organs and muscles is compromised when the individual segments of the spine don’t move correctly. Take a moment to digest that… your organs and your muscles could potentially work better if the messages from the nerves are relayed 100%, which is only possible if the spine moves correctly.
Cardiovascular effects also occur due to disuse including a decrease in oxygen uptake, meaning that the blood does not carry oxygen in the amount it is supposed to. Extended rest and inactivity is also directly responsible for an increase in blood pressure and an overall blood plasma volume decrease, This means that the amount of blood in your body drops, sometimes by 10-15%! How can an individual expect to feel good and function optimally when there is less blood that can’t carry the oxygen load it is supposed to?

Physical inactivity also leads to nervous system changes, including slower mental processing, problems with memory and concentration, depression and anxiety.

A key factor in chronic pain

Many other detrimental physiological changes occur during periods when an individual does not exercise. Disuse has been summarized as follows: “Inactivity plays a pervasive role in our lack of wellness. Disuse is physically, mentally, and spiritually debilitating.” Many experts believe that the disuse syndrome is a key variable in the perpetuation of many chronic pain problems. The disuse syndrome can also lead to a variety of emotional changes that are associated with an increased perception of pain
Unfortunately, common attitudes and treatments in the medical community often lead to more passive treatment without paying attention to physical activity and exercise (of any type). Medication is commonly prescribed to treat symptoms instead of looking to the cause of the problem, which is especially concerning when the solution could be as simple as getting a little bit of exercise every day.

Where to from here?

It can be overwhelming for some people in chronic pain or who are accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle to consider how to get moving. The simplest suggestion in this case is to begin slowly with an activity that the individual enjoys-it is beneficial that this task is not made out to feel like a chore, but rather a positive change in lifestyle. It is also important to consider that Rome wasn’t built in a day, if all that was achieved was one extra flight of stairs climbed or one walk around the block in a week- it’s still 100% better than not doing anything at all.
The premise behind this article is to encourage those who are not moving, to get moving! The body is a remarkable specimen, which is designed to move, so let it do just that!