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What's Normal?

One of the questions I hear most often from my clients is, “Is this normal?” They come to the question by many routes. Popular lead-ins include “My [pick a body part] is so tense,” or “It hurts when I [choose a simple action],” not to mention, “So many months after my [injury, surgery, trauma, etc.] I’m still in pain…” But I also hear, “My [choose a joint] is bendier than most other people’s,” and “I feel tingling in my [body part]” a lot.

I should probably preface my comments here with the caveat that I am not a doctor and have not been to medical school. If you are seriously concerned about an issue in your own body, consult your physician. That said, I have studied anatomy and I see and work with a lot of different bodies, so as a blanket answer: what’s normal?

That sounds glib, but it’s sincere. Anatomically speaking, “normal” describes a vast bell curve. A quick glance can tell you that humans come in all shapes and sizes, and that variety isn’t limited to what’s outwardly visible. We have a few variably present muscles, such as palmaris longus, a wrist flexor found in the forearms of roughly 85% of humans but not the other 15%. (I myself have a palmaris longus muscle in my left arm but not in my right.) Most of us have two kidneys and twenty-four ribs, but some people have three kidneys, or only one, or twenty-six ribs, or twenty-two. In anatomy class we learned a laundry list of bone markings – noteworthy as landmarks and muscle attachment sites – and also that not everybody has all of those bone markings.

In the cases I’ve mentioned so far, it makes no functional difference whether you have the standard-issue body parts or some discrepancy; you could live your whole life without even knowing what you’ve got, unless you get a full-body scan for some reason. (Despite their asymetry, I’ve never noticed a difference in function between my left and right wrists.) Meanwhile we’ve all heard of people being born with extra fingers or toes, or fewer than the usual number. Sometimes that makes a functional difference, sometimes it doesn’t. Other anatomical variations are more dramatic, but if you include disabled people in your reckoning, “normal” anatomy covers an astonishing range.

Then there are structural and postural issues. Some people have a limited range of motion for their entire lives, while others live with hyper-mobile joints and extreme flexibility. Think of gymnasts and circus contortionists; obviously they’re out there in the skinny tip of the bell curve, but my point is, it’s a wide curve.

“Is this normal?” is therefore a meaningless question from my perspective. One person’s normal could be another person’s medical emergency. The real question is, is what you’re experiencing normal for you? Or to put it differently, this thing that you think might not be normal – is it bothering you? Causing you pain? Interfering with your life? If so, it’s a problem you should address. If not, however unusual it might be, it’s your normal.

Zooming back for a wider view, pop culture offers us only one version of “normal,” and it’s improbably perfect. (Also young, thin, able-bodied, and most likely white.) Any body that deviates from this “norm” tends to be presented as, in some way, worse. So we absorb this idea that if we aren’t improbably perfect, we aren’t normal, aren’t healthy, aren’t right somehow.

But that’s absurd. If your body feels okay to you, by your own standards, it is normal. If your body is in pain, you have options: go see your doctor, go see your massage therapist, change up what you’ve been doing (posturally, nutritionally, emotionally, or whatever you need) until you feel better. You are the only reliable judge of whether your body is normal, so trust yourself.

And by the way, if your version of normal includes physical pain? Come see me. I bet I can help.

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