ACS > ACS POSTS > Tensegrity: an osteopathic journey into structure-function 3 – part three

Tensegrity: an osteopathic journey into structure-function 3 – part three

By Mervyn Waldman

ASOMI College of Sciences is concerned with issues regarding health, including osteopathy. Therefore, ACS is honored to recommend the reading of the adaptation of a scientific paper by Mervyn Waldman on the principle of Tensegrity in osteopathy.

The article below is the third and the last part of this series of articles. Click here for the first and here for the second part. The part at hand includes also the biography.

Osteopathy – Tensegrity – Littlejohn

Any physical contact between two bodies is a stress transfer from one to another. In Osteopathy the stress transfer is seeking to be specifically utilizing appropriate vectors such as force, intensity, direction, duration, sequencing, velocity, and depth. The surface contact area is also crucial to ensure the appropriate level of strain. Whatever the effects, muscular, metabolic, neural, fascial, lymphatic, are all dependent on the appropriate level and delivery of the stress-guided transfer. The application of force on a targeted tissue translates into a change in spatial and textural properties of the matter that it impacts.

Physical therapies, dance, exercise, and various forms of movement can indeed influence cellular activities, including cell growth, differentiation, and potentially even immune cell responses that are critical to human health. Chemicals and genes are absolute of critical importance; however, they are governed by mechanical forces, as well as chemical cues. (Tozzi 2010, 2015)

The tensile and compression elements of tensegrity structures in the human body respond to the force of gravity vectors as they traverse through the body.

In the early decade of the 20th century, McConnel and Littlejohn began to formulate in increasing detail a proposed outline of the direction of the chief vectors and their potential influence on body mechanics and function.

Hohenschurz-Schmidt versus Littlejohn

Hohenschurz-Schmidt, in a recent article available on the web, contrasted the principles of tensegrity with those of Littlejohn’s study in body mechanics. I believe his analysis to be worthy of serious study and consideration.

He points out that, despite the apparent appearance of Littlejohn’s lines of force transmission through the body and their summation in polygons being a study in ‘statics’, in fact, throughout Littlejohn’s elaboration of the subject, it is ‘dynamics’ and the functional effects that dominate and underline its formulation.

Littlejohn emphasizes that it is the balance of spinal curve to curve relationships, vertebral body, and facet shapes, together with an analysis of transitional zones in the spinal column and the relation to the limbs, as an integrated motor unit, having to meet and adapt to gravitational forces, that determines human body mechanics.

To quote Hohenschultz-Schmidt:

“At a first glance, this spinal assessment has very little to do with a compression-tension system. Moreover, in Littlejohn’s writings, there are ‘pivots’, ‘levers’, and gravity-dependent force vectors. Advocates of a ‘bio-tensegrity’ make every attempt to ban these ‘traditional’ biomechanical terms from their analysis, stating that in a true tensegrity such levers could not exist, but that only non-linear force distribution along tensile trains could integrate focal compression points.

However, this vocabulary was, at the time of J.M.Littlejohn, the only one disposable. Littlejohn saw the T9 vertebra to be the keystone of a mainly compressive dorsal curvature; cervical and lumbar curves were deemed more ‘fluid’ in nature and bars of a keystone.

Nowadays, no serious biomechanical researcher would hold that the spine is a column of blocks, disregarding tension and lateral force transmission – such a notion has become the ‘bad guy or antagonist for many advocates of biotensegrity necessary to highlight the ‘uniqueness of their approach.

Besides that, even not J.M. Littlejohn considered the spine only as a compressive column; after a closer examination, Littlejohn was no less concerned with the soft-tissue influences on the spine than he was with joint shape and curve function.

For example, posterior and anterior cervical muscles were thought to influence the way C2 and C5 would move, (one being drawn posteriorly by the suboccipital musculature and the other tending to flex forward under the tension of the scalene and longus colli musculature).

The gravity lines constituting the polygon of forces have also been termed anterior and posterior ‘lines of articular tension’ (Campbell, undated), indicating that instead of a fixed compressive force, the body adapts along the lines to balance gravity. More importantly, the spine is not conceptualized as a column, instead, emphasis is made on particular points within a functional unit.

These points, either functional pivot or centers of gravity, could, alternatively, be conceptualized as areas of compression. They are isolated but functionally linked by the influence of tension. This tension can be conveyed through myofascial structures, thus, at least on a conceptual level its linkable to tensegrity”.

foto interna art44 pt3
ConclusionLittlejohn’s spinal mechanics are thus not contradictory to the notion of tensegrity at all – or, at least as long as they are perceived from a functional point of view. Anatomical structures may be morphologically more or less capable to function under either compression or tension, but their roles may shift. Units of compression and units of tension may change depending on the momentary demand. What is notably missing in Littlejohn’s teachings is the consideration of the spine in space. Once the position of the spine in space is altered, the emphasis on gravity as a pre-determined direction of force becomes misleading. Standing on the head, L3 is unlikely to still be the main center of gravity. By saying that Littlejohn’s concept is adaptive, the author means that none of the segmental specifications is necessarily fixed. L3 is not always the center of gravity and the T/L may sometimes have to function as a real transition area even thoughT9/10 is more suitable for such a task from an anatomic point of view. Rather, Littlejohn’s specifications have to be taken as guidelines. In a three-dimensional motion, these points will inevitably have to shift. The points of soft tissue attachment and the general anatomy are what remains constant. Also, spinal biomechanics needs to be integrated with the function of the limbs. Here, again, anatomical evaluation of myofascial force transmission can guide the practitioner. In certain movements, tension along predetermined myofascial lines and planes is relayed and it can be more or less adaptable to stress.” About the author The current president of the Institute of Classical Osteopathy, Mervyn Waldman is an Israel-based Osteopath. He graduated in 1974 from the British College of Osteopathic Medicine and taught, from 1976 to 1990 Principles & Practice of Classical Osteopathy at the European School of Osteopathy.


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