Have you wondered why some people are naturally graceful or athletic? Is there a predisposition that allows certain individuals to excel as dancers, gymnasts or in other sports involving flexibility? The answer is Yes! In this article we will discuss the blessings and banes of having loose ligaments or hypermobility—also known as being double jointed.
Ligaments are fibrous tissues that act like straps connecting two bones together. General laxity or looseness in ligaments is something that approximately 10% of the population is born with. It tends to be genetic, passed down from generation to generation. People with loose ligaments tend to make excellent gymnasts and dancers, for example, thanks to their natural flexibility and graceful movements. But there is a downside.
To find out if you have lax ligaments, rate yourself using 5 tests in the “Beighton Score.” First, you get 2 points (one for each side) if you can bend both your little fingers back to 90 degrees. Next, you get 2 points if your elbows bend backward more than 10 degrees. Give yourself 2 points if you can flex your wrist to touch your thumb to your forearm. The fourth test gives you 2 points (again one for each side) if you can hyperextend or bend you knees backward more than 10 degrees. Last, you get 1 point if you can bend your spine forward so you reach the floor with your palms flat on the ground, while you keep your knees straight.
The minimum score to consider yourself to have loose ligaments as a teenager is 4 to 6 points. Since joint laxity decreases with age, consider yourself to have loose ligaments if you rate 2 to 4 points and you’re over 30-40 years of age. If you score the maximum 9 points, consider your ligaments very loose!
One important reason for knowing whether you have loose ligaments is the way you are perceived by the medical system when you are injured. For example, if you have loose ligaments and injure your back, the normal test of mobility (active range of motion) used by a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor or insurance company won’t apply to you.
Typically, a loose-ligamented person with sacroiliac or low back injury will still be able to touch the hands to the toes and be mobile, even with back pain. The normal evaluation tests don’t apply to loose-ligamented people, but many health professionals don’t differentiate between degrees of ligament laxity. This can lead to frustration because the individual may be deemed a hypochondriac since all standard tests appear normal.
Another problem plaguing individuals with loose ligaments is the inability to feel a stretch in the muscles. For example, when a loose-ligamented person tries to stretch the front thigh (quadricep muscles), it isn’t uncommon to be able to bring the heel to the buttock without feeling a stretch in the thigh. This is because the knee and hip joint are so loose that the motion can actually occur in the joints and not truly stretch the muscle. Specific stretches taking ligament laxity into account work best for these individuals. It isn’t rare to find weak, tight and restricted muscles and fascia in these individuals despite their apparent flexibility.
Last and most important, people with loose ligaments tend to be able to override and quickly compensate for injuries. While this is good initially, it is often more difficult for such individuals to get the proper feedback from their body to know when to rest an injury. An example is a dancer who initially sprains an ankle and continues to dance by compensating at the knee or hip. Someone with tight ligaments may be in too much pain to jump until the ankle regains alignment and heals. Typically, by the time people with loose ligaments start to feel that they have a problem, several joints are already involved. An accumulation of injuries must generally be assessed and properly treated.
So if you or someone in your family has recurrent problems with sprains, strains, tendonitis, chondromalacia, or joint subluxations (when a joint dislocates and corrects itself) it’s a good idea to check for lax ligaments. Then find a medical professional familiar with this particular condition for the best treatment and outcome.