Dimming the muscle switch

With the arrival of 2016, and with it the continued realization that time passes faster and faster every year, it makes me reflect back on the goals and objectives that I set for my recovery last year, to the unfinished goals that I will carry over into the new year and to new objectives I will set for my continued path of spinal cord injury recovery.

I can confidently say that my body has changed significantly in the past year. In the last couple of weeks especially, I’ve been doing a lot more work in standing positions and my trainer has challenged me and in turn pushed the limits of the Pilates equipment (which have probably never been used for some of the exercises we do…) by coming up with novel ways of strengthening my current abilities and building off of those to challenge my body to find the next steps of function.

As a result, my endurance to stay standing – while much less than I would like – is noticeably better than it was even a month or so ago. I’ll share a video below to show one of the recent exercises I’ve been working on and one that went from needing a lot of assistance a couple of months ago, to now being able to control everything relatively smoothly on my own.

So where do I go from here?

One of my main goals for 2016 will be what I’m calling “dimming the switch.” I use the analogy of a light switch because it applies quite well to what I’m referring to.

Right now, the engagement that I get to the muscles of my lower body generally works like a light switch, meaning when I turn a certain set of muscles on or perform a particular movement, those muscles are on 100%, working hard, contracting strongly. When I decide to change positions or turn off, everything just kinda releases all at once. So I’m stuck with a light switch; on or off; 0 or 100%, with not much control of the in between.

For example, in the video above, if I were to try to bend my knees or do that same exercise in a light squat (which I must admit would be rather challenging for anyone), I would crumple to the ground, unable to dim that switch and maintain control of my stance. I either have to stay with legs locked straight or I get nothing at all.

You see where I’m going with this right?

The dimmer switch is essential to any kind of functional movement that I’m working to regain. I have to be able to control some muscles at 50 or 70% and not just 100%. Not only that, but I also have to relearn and retrain myself on how to differentiate one side of the body from the other. In other words, if I’m going to be able to successfully take steps, my left leg must be able to bear weight and be at 80 or 90 or 100% contraction while the right leg is lifted in the air and taking a step. It utterly blows my mind to think about how a healthy body and spinal cord can so naturally manage a movement pattern like walking that may seem simple, but is actually startlingly complex as it’s a consistent dimming up and down of different muscles at all times.

Like so much of what I have understood since my injury, our bodies and our movements are incredible and should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to underestimate just how much is involved with a seemingly simple set of movements, until you’re faced with an entirely different body that doesn’t react the same way.

So I will dedicate 2016 to finding that dimmer switch and being able to control my lower body movements more fluidly and effortlessly.

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36 thoughts on “Dimming the muscle switch

  1. Amazing progress, Arash.
    I’m constantly inspired by your courage and determination. You are the most motivated spinal injury person I’ve ever seen or heard of and you deserve a ‘standing’ ovation. I hope you achieve your goal in 2016.

    Just keep up the constant practice and I’m sure you’ll succeed.

    I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when you first moved your little toe.

    BTW I had a second lumber spine surgery last May. Emergency this time as a herniated disc was crushing a nerve and I could not lift my leg very much at all and there was no reflex when the Dr hit it with the reflex mallet. The thigh/groin pain was excruciating way beyond my 30 yr chronic pain condition – L2/3 this time.


    But this post reminded me that since my 1st lumbar spine surgery in 2008, I haven’t been able to squat or use my thighs to get up from kneeling position when doing nature photography. I have to use my hands/shoulders to push myself upright. I’m used to it now. After 3 months of core strengthening, knee & thigh exercises after last May’s surgery, I still can’t get up off the ground without using my hands/shoulders. The neurosurgeon said the nerve damage was permanent.

    I can stand and I can sit, but can only bend my knees and lower my body about 20%, after that I fall. Your talking about the dimmer switch and being able to bend your knees accurately describes my own issues. I can ‘dim’ my switch about 20% then fall over (or right down to a full squat which seems to crush a nerve causing excruciating pain and I have to quickly throw my body over on one side, falling on the ground and then put myself in a position where I can use my hands/shoulders to get upright).

    I wish I had the funds to do some intensive physio and pilates, but rent & living expenses take all my Disability Pension. By the way, walking around the streets no one would know I had anything amiss. It’s only when I kneel to take photos low down or try to get up after siting on the ground that the problem is apparent. Actually I never sit on the ground or a low couch or chair. I can only kneel with my left leg too, not my right. But as long as I walk slowly and stick to flat paths I’m just fine.

    I might do some more research on the internet. It’s cheaper than a pilates/physio.. But the point of my reply is…..that I know exactly what you’re talking about as I experience that ‘dimmer switch’ incapacity in a much lesser way. I have a partial ‘dimmer’ switch, but no more.

    1. Interesting to hear about your experience and how it relates to the dimmer switch. I’m glad that analogy makes sense and apparently it has a closer meaning to you and your experience. Interesting how your 20% control of your squatting and bending your knees means that you’re still able to walk around and people don’t notice your challenges. I hope to get to that point someday. I hope your search for better physio goes well. Just remember that there ARE people out there who think differently and challenge the status quo and can give you hope for a better outcome than to just stick with the existing paradigm. Find those people and work with them. It can lead to better results. Best to you -AB

  2. My mind is blown to see you doing standing exercises! What amazing progress, what an inspiration,and what a pioneer! You are doing things they said can’t be done! So very proud of that!! And I like the dimmer switch analogy, sending you good energy as you continue!!

  3. Fascinating! Exciting to see continued improvement in strength! Wow! I think of you when I am in my Pilates reformer class, especially when it’s so hard I feel like I just can’t do it. You inspire me! Here’s to lots of dimming in 2016! Hugs!

  4. i found your blog last year, I believe and was amazed at your determination. I left the blogging world for a while and just recently returned to find this and your TedTalk…and I’m not gonna lie…I squealed out loud when I saw how far you have come. Incredible! much love!

  5. My name is Marceline. I am a 64 year old RN who fell last October and sustained injury to T10/T11 with bilateral LE impairments. Supposed to be a Workers Comp case, but 3 months later still haven’t even had the case accepted. So all the rehab I have is whatever I can do on my own. Am massively encouraged by your accomplishments Arash! Thank you for sharing your progresses! Amazing to see you standing. Your will and drive are truly inspirational! I understand completely about the dimmer switch! Then combine that with spasms in my feet and legs and the concept of control sometimes seems almost unachievable. So, seeing your progress keeps hope in me alive.
    BTW there is a great free site called physiotherapyexercises.com that was developed by a group of physiotherapists with over 1000 exercises with specific designs for strengthening every part of the body, And it is available in 9 languages. And it allows a private therapist to tailor groups of exercises for a particular client’s needs. A great help for those of us who have limited finances or resources for rehab.
    Thanks also for the resources link in your site. I intend to keep watching you succeed!!!

    1. Thanks for sharing that website Marceline. Always great to learn of new resources like that. I hope you’re able to improve your condition and work towards healing. Best wishes to you -AB

  6. My name is Marceline. I am a 64 yo RN who fell last October with central cord edema at T10 /T11 with bilateral LE impairments. Supposed to be a Workers Comp case but 3 months later the case hasn’t even been accepted yet. So, the only rehab I have had is whatever I have done on my own. Boy do I understand the need for a dimmer switch! And combine that with hypersensitivity and hyper-reflexivity with spasms and one almost loses hope of regaining any sense of control! Thank you Arash for sharing your remarkable progress and stick-to-it-iveness! Your progress gives hope! And hope drives us!
    BTW there is a fantastic free site: physiotherapyexercises.com that was developed by physiotherapists with over 1000 specific exercises for “people with injuries and disabilities”. It is easy to navigate, is in 9 languages, and allows a therapist to tailor make a program for a client. Or one can simply use for ones own program of rehab.
    Thanks also for your resources link! Fabulous and inspiring stories!
    Will continue to follow your exciting progress! Thanks again for being a bright light to the world!

  7. WOWWWWW! This is so exciting! I’m speechless. the determination and focus on your face says it all. That’s your power!!

  8. Arash you’ve come so far from the last time I saw you! Keep up the amazing work. Hope to see you soon!

  9. Wow! You are amazing!! You look great!! With that determination, you will achieve your goals. I love your intelligence, as well, through this — educating yourself, advocating for yourself, not taking no for an answer, pushing to the next level. Keep going, Arash, I can’t wait to see where you go from here! Truly!

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