First, Foucault, Fractals, Freedom Fighters, Foam Rolling, Fascia and Feminists

It’s the start of a new year and for me, the start of a PhD.

The first month (just managed to sneak this one under the wire) has been a fascinating start.

I’m going to be looking at different groups beliefs about aspects of the human body, particularly Fascia.  This is social research – a whole different ball game.

Anyone who has looked at social research will know you can’t really move without bumping into Foucault and his thoughts on why things are the way they are so there has been some significant reading in that area.

And then Fractals – this is the mathematical idea of repeating patterns that are found everywhere in nature.  That took some time to get my head around but once you are aware of it you begin to see it everywhere.

That experience is called the Baader Meinhof phenomenon.  The Baader Meinhof group was a militant organisation usually referred to as terrorists.  That doesn’t begin with an F and I think the quote that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ ties in quite nicely with the idea I am exploring that lots of different groups see the same thing in different way.

This tied in with the feminism strand where I had to read a really interesting book on Emily Davidson, the woman who stepped out onto the race course on Derby day back in 1913.  It’s one of the interesting things of moving towards the humanities; that there are many different ways of looking at the same thing.

Foam rolling? It’s the main connection that the public have with fascia.  Do you foam roll?  What do you think it is doing?

It’s going to be 6 years of wild exploration!

Christmas – the true story

Everybody knows that the true story of Christmas now days is over indulgence.

This could be in the form of presents and spending money you don’t have but it is also in the form of food.

There is a horrendous advert on the bus stop up from my house for one of the major supermarkets.  It shows a spread of food with the tag line ‘Christmas is a time for sharing…unfortunately.’  What a terrible message!

What does your body do when you overindulge?  We probably all know that we get drowsy and feel stuffed, but why?

Food enters our digestive system via the mouth where you chew it all up, mix it up with saliva and it is then pushed to the back of your mouth as a bolus; a nice round ball of food without any sharp edges that can be passed down your oesophagus and into your stomach.

The stomach is usually a small deflated hand sized organ that sits just under your rib cage.  It has a folded layer that allows it to expand as food enters it and it has three payers of muscles that lay in different directions to allow it to churn the food inside with the acid and continue digestion.

After the food has been broken up it passes from the stomach into the small intestine where it has bile added to it to aid with fat digestion.  The nutrients are removed from it as it passes along the 20ft of the small intestine.  Passing the appendix, it enters into the 6 foot of the large intestine where water is absorbed and the remaining waste passes out of the anus when you go to the toilet.

That’s the normal passage of events so what is the difference at Christmas?

It’s the volume of food that you eat and the speed at which you eat it.

The message that goes from the stomach to the brain to say that it is full is based on hormones.  These circulate in the blood to get the message to the brain and so the communication is not as quick as a nervous signal.

We have two hormones that control our appetite, ghrelin and leptin.  Basically ghrelin increases appetite and leptin suppresses it.  As the stomach expands it sends the message to the brain that it is full and leptin is released which should reduce our appetite.  This can take 20 minutes.

On the 25th keep an eye on the clock and see how much food you eat in 20 minutes!

Add to that the fact that there seems to be an increasing problem with leptin resistance.  People who are obese seem to require more leptin to be released before it has any effect.

Why do you feel sleepy?

The blood supply is diverted to the stomach to cope with the digestion of food.  Other systems slow down to accommodate the reduced blood supply.

Can I eat so much I burst?

It’s unlikely but not impossible.  There are some rare clinical cases of people managing to rupture their stomachs through over indulgence.  It’s not going to look like the scene from Monty Python but it’s not going to be pleasant.

Why do I get heart burn? What is heart burn?

The stomach produces a very strong acid.  The lining of the stomach is immune to this acid and protects the organ from its effects.  The oesophagus connects the mouth to the stomach – it is not immune to the effects of this acid.  It is possible for the acid to pass up into the oesophagus through the sphincter (valve) that would normally separate the two.  This is acid reflux and you feel it as a burning sensation as the acid attacks the oesophagus (treat it and if it keeps happening see someone about it)

What should I do?

Cut yourself some slack.  It’s Christmas (or any other holiday).  Be aware that your dinner probably contains around 3 times the amount of calories you need in a day.  You might have had a drink, your will power might be lower and you might feel obliged to eat every dish that Aunt Bessie puts in front of you. Take your time, eat slowly, see if that leptin message is on its way.


    Happy Christmas and see you in 2020.

Christmas and eponyms

Christmas seems an appropriate time to be looking at eponyms (think about it)

Today is December 1st so I get to open the first window on my advent calendar.

It is a tablet calendar.  If you aren’t Scottish, or don’t know what tablet is then you are missing out but also far less likely to become diabetic.

As well as my actual advent calendar I am also running #Anatomyadvent where each day I am posting an eponym, a structure in the body that is named after the person who described it, and we are seeing what anatomists in twitterverse call it.

The academic move is against using eponyms.  They don’t encourage understanding and you can see that naming something after ‘some white dude’ doesn’t tell you a lot about what it does or where it is.

A common language in medicine is a great way to communicate.  Trips to the A and E with my son have  sped up since I have learned the language.  We can be precise, the medic knows exactly what we are talking about.

Opinions are split about eponyms and I think whether they are good or bad  depends who you are talking to.

If I am talking to the medical student then their learning the term  ‘pouch of Douglas’ tells them nothing about where it is, what it does.  You can see that the powers to be might think calling it ‘retro uterine pouch’ tells the student where it is.  It helps, it helps those people who understand latin.  Translating things out of Latin so that more people could understand them is a move we made back in the 1600’s.  Is this a backwards step?  putting things back into Latin.

If I am engaged in Science communication then ‘retro uterine’ means nothing more than ‘Douglas’ . It sounds like Latin, it sounds elitist, it puts people off.  Douglas, on the other hand, begs the question ‘Who was Douglas?’  It opens up stories from the history of medicine.  It allows conversations about why parts of the body are named after ‘some white dude’.  It promotes discussions about why no one else seems to appear in history -its all ‘random white dudes.’  Eponyms can be a springboard off into other directions.

Are they good or bad?  I think it depends where you are standing.  Let’s see what #Anatomyadvent shows us about their use.  Have they gone or are they still in use?


P.S.  It appears that the pouch of Douglas might actually be called the Rectouterine pouch now because it is between the rectum and the uterus, rather than the Retrouterine pouch because it is behind the uterus – both factually correct –  but only one will be the correct name.   Ironic that trying to clarify the name of it has actually created confusion.

Coughs and Sneezes

As everyone says now days, Winter is coming.

And with it the inevitable batch of coughs and colds.  Bacteria and viruses spread around the place by people acting as incubators and distribution centres for illnesses we could all do without.

But how does your body protect itself against the invasion of these nasties? What is the difference between a cough and a sneeze and why might you never look at an escalator in the same light again?

Everybody knows that coughs and colds can be airborne.  This is why we are all told to cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, to help control the spread of the infection. So what lines of defence does our body put in place.

The chosen site of infection is the respiratory system – the way we get air into our bodies to supply us with oxygen.  This route starts at our nose, passes backwards to the rear of the throat where it joins up with the oral cavity.  From there is passes down through the pharynx and larynx and into the trachea, our air pipe.  This tube’s shape is maintained by semi circular ridges of cartilage.  There is no cartilage at the back so that the oesophagus (food pipe) can expand to allow food to pass down into our stomach.  The whole system is lined with special cells that produce mucus.

Whether this mucus is called snot or phlegm depends on whether it is produced in the nose or in the lower respiratory tract.  Where ever it is produced, its purpose is to engulf any particles that shouldn’t be in the air passages.

Once the invading particle has been engulfed, how does it get up out of the trachea?  The cells that line the trachea have cilia; little hairs that beat to waft particles away from the cells.  Within the trachea the beating of the hairs is coordinated so that mucus is passed from the lower cells up towards the larynx where it can be disposed of by swallowing.  This system of moving the mucus from the depth of the lungs to the throat is known as the mucociliary escalator.  It gives all the defeated bacteria and viruses a ride up to the waste disposal route.

So what makes us cough and sneeze?

The respiratory system also has sensitive hairs within it that detect things that should not be there.  If these hairs are triggered in the lower respiratory tract then a message is sent to the diaphragm causing it to contract rapidly and expel air from the lungs.  This is a cough.  If the nasal passages are irritated then it causes a rapid expulsion of air through the nose – a sneeze.

Why does the cough persist?

The presence of foreign particles in the airway, their attempt to invade cells, and coughing, can cause the lining in the airway to become inflamed. This inflammation can be a good thing as it is caused by an increased blood flow to the area which brings increased levels of immune system components, but it does tend to linger for a few days after the initial infection or irritation has gone.  This will resolve itself but if it continues beyond a few weeks you should see your doctor.

Does a cough syrup help?

Cough syrups vary in their active ingredients.  Some contain drugs that suppress the cough reflex.  Think about that.  It stops your body from trying to remove foreign particles from your airway!  Some contain decongestants that make your mucus more runny, easier to cough up.  Most contain sugar.

No systematic study of cough medicines have shown that they have any effect on coughs (either good or bad).  Continue to administer your favourite cough syrup if you want but be aware what you are administering is the placebo effect.


Alternative cough treatments

When you have a cough or cold your body increases the amount of mucus that it makes.  This can be around 2L a day so you need to make sure you drink a lot of fluid.

You can decongest your airways with a hot shower.  Damp warm air will make it easier for you to breath.

Honey or lemon (or a hot toddy) will be as effective as any cough syrup. (All of which are as effective as doing nothing so just do what makes you feel good.)




Winged Scapula…Really?

There seems to be a great propensity within exercise professionals to diagnose, and the unfortunate thing is that a lot of the time they don’t even realise they are doing it.

At a recent training sessions I noticed that a lot of instructors were quite comfortable telling their partners that they had ‘winged scapula’.

Now you could argue that that is a generic term for having shoulder blades that stick out from your rib cage but it is the technical term for shoulder blades that stick out from your back because of a neurological issue.

If a member of the public in a class took that phrase to their doctors we would be faced with two scenarios:-

A – the GP would panic they had missed a diagnosis of a neurological condition,

B- the GP would have a wry smile and think ‘Exercise professional talking bollocks again.’

Either scenario is not great for the professional involved and both leave the member of public doubting the knowledge of the experts.

To be fair, when it was pointed out to the exercise professionals that winged scapula was a medical sign of the long thoracic nerve not functioning, which is quite a rare medical disorder, they were horrified they had ever been introduced to the term.  When shown a picture of a genuine winged scapula, none of them had ever seen it.

Let’s compare two pictures.

This is a genuine winged scapula caused by the long thoracic nerve not working.  This nerve innervates the serratus anterior muscle and with it not contracting and holding the shoulder blade (scapula) to the rib cage, the scapula sticks out if pressure is put on the extended arm.


You can imagine that this would display itself during press ups.

There is a difference between the person whose shoulders blades stick up in a press up because they are not used to contracting the serratus anterior and the person who can’t contract that muscle. (It’s the subtle difference between ‘you have a winged scapula’ and ‘your scapula are winging’ although the second phrase is usually used by people who don’t appreciate the difference and have grammatically stumbled on the phrase)


This second picture is from a site aimed at exercise professional.  It is claiming that this is a winged scapula and that you can fix it with their exercises.  There exercises engage the Serratus so would pull the scapula in but you can see that the person’s scapula isn’t winging, in fact the arrow points to a depression on their back where their scapula is, over hung by the development of their Traps.   Is it any wonder that people get confused.

To further add to the confusion the same site overs to fix something else that isn’t a problem.

Here we can see someone with their finger tips inserted between a scapula and a rib cage – this must be a problem!  Surely this is winging?

No, look at the pose.  The man has his hand around behind him in the small of his back.  This is the pose that body workers use to release the shoulder blade so that they can work on the muscles around it.  If your shoulder blade didn’t come away from your rib cage in this pose you would never be able to get into the pose, your arm wouldn’t go behind you.

Maybe its just trying to demonstrate the problem on someone whose nervous system is functionally properly.  I think they would have been better using a press up and asking him to relax his serratus.  If you can contract it, you can relax it and allow your shoulder blades to splay out (not wing).

The bottom line is that words are powerful.  If you have taken a technical term from another profession then you need to be careful how you use it.  Particularly if the person you are using it with is likely to go across professions (like the public).

The public’s understanding on how their body works is often dubious.  The professions don’t need to add to the confusion by not appreciating what they are communicating.


There be dragons…

I would not describe myself as a cryptozoologist – the jury still seems to be out on what that means.

If it is someone who tries to justify the existence of mythical creatures, then count me out.  If it is someone who studies mythical creatures then, guilty as charged.  Many hours have been spent debating whether four legs and wings would work and they are a fantastic ‘in’ to the public for science communication.

I’ve recently had an article published that used zombies to explain neuroanatomy (available here).  I asked everyone at the event to give me a zombie impression – they all stood up and did the same thing.  If zombies don’t exist then how did they do that?  We very quickly get into philosophical discussion about ‘existence’ and phrases such as ‘social constructs maintained in the societal collective’

Moving on….let’s talk mermaids!

There is a very rare (1 in 100,000 births) congenital deformity where babies are born with their lower limbs fused together.  This is called Sirenomelia or mermaid syndrome.  Its cause it debated.

Here I am talking about the mythical creature who lures sailors to their deaths – they generally aren’t nice – you need to think about Harry Potter and Peter Pan as opposed to Ariel.

Mermaids (and mermen) are another creature that almost everybody knows what they look like.  Another useful ‘in’ to describe movement and spinal musculature.

Almost everyone describes a merperson’s tail as seen in this picture. (I was going to use the statue of the mermaid from Copenhagen but it has legs).  The merperson has a lower half that is covered in scales and the fins of the tail are in the same orientation as the arms – they stick out to the sides.

They are described as being half human, half fish.

A fish has a tail that looks like this.

The fins are vertical.  The main musculature on a fish sits either side of the spine, anyone who has ever filleted a fish can confirm that.  As a fish swims it moves its tail from side to side.  There is an argument that this is the evolutionary advantage of having the left side of your brain control the right side of your body and vice versa.  When danger approaches a fish from the right, it has to contract the left side of its body to move away.  The few milliseconds advantage that it gets from having the right side of its brain control the left side of its body could mean life or death.  (This gets complicated when we appreciate that the visual field might cross over too, but I did say it was an argument, as opposed to the truth)

To use their tail in the same way as a fish, a merperson would have to swim on their side.

The main musculature in the torso of a mammal is at the front and back.  Aquatic mammals have tails that look like this and the movement in the water is up and down rather than side to side.

This is the way that merpeople are usually depicted as swimming in films.  That would make sense, the top half of the merperson is mammalian, its musculature would be at the front and back, the tail movement is usually orientated that way.

What is with the scales then?

Is the half fish bit just the scales and the appearance of the fins?  A quick look at their suggested anatomy and movement would say that they are more likely to be half person, half dolphin.

That probably doesn’t look quite so photogenic in films.

Either way, you probably will never look at mermaids in the same way again.

(Let’s just gloss over the fact they sit on rock with no pelvis and they bend their tails at the ‘knee’ joint)

And so it starts…

When I first started my academic anatomical study five years ago, the plan was always to try and take that knowledge back to the exercise world and the other professions which don’t always gets access to qualified anatomical education.

This weekend saw the start of that process as Kat Sanders, Gabs Finn and myself ran two workshops at the Pilates Gathering 2019 in Edinburgh.

We had the joy of helping two groups of pilates instructors explore the shoulder joint.  They felt around the bony landmarks, looked at the joint during movement and then attempted to paint on the muscles, understanding their actions.

Everybody enjoyed it


We also had the opportunity to paint up our model and have him pose on some of the pilates equipment from balanced body so that people could see which muscles were being used during exercise.



We left with several contacts for taking qualified anatomical into teacher training and thought about planning a retreat for anyone who wants to understand more about their anatomy.

Watch this space!


It surprises some people to find out that I was a Zumba instructor.  You can’t be a serious sports people and like Zumba! It’s just dancing around!

Well HITT and squats aren’t for everyone and anything that gets you moving is great!

This week we did one of my favourite moves at class.  Its one of my favourite because it demonstrates a problem with anatomy education of the public. (You might have guessed that)

The move is the machete move from the Cumbia dance and it mimics the moves involved with cutting down sugar cane.

I’ve linked to a little instructional video here.

(Zumba have a very large legal teams so no videos of me dancing)

The arm comes across in front of the body palm up and then as you step back the arm rotates so that the palm is now facing out.  You hardly notice it at the low speed but as you see when he speeds up he introduces this little circle in the middle of the movement to ensure he gets that rotation.

Try it yourself.  If you add that little circle so that the palm is facing outwards as the arm goes back then you can get that joint a lot further than if you don’t have that little circle.

Why is that?

If you do the circle properly then it actually rotates the whole arm.  It moves the greater tuberosity of the humerus, a lump of bone at the top of your arm bone away from the bones at the top of the shoulder joint.

The reason you don’t get so far if you don’t do the little circle is because the bones obstruct the movement.

Now bear in mind that some of the people who are doing this are doing it at speed and dancing like no one is watching and you have a potential injury waiting to happen.

It takes ten seconds to explain it and you can feel the difference instantly in your own shoulder joint.

If you know someone who does Zumba – pass the message on

Pink Flamingos and Cochleas

I was planning to do a piece on the workings of the ear, how we hear.

The ear is fascinating.  A complex mix of cartilage and bone tunnels, moving membranes, tiny tiny bones (although still the only bones that are full size when we are born), our own amplification system, liquid filled coils, sensitive hairs and electrical impulses.  It allows us to hone in on particular noises, it can help us identify the direction the sound is coming from.  Without it our interactions with the world would be different.

And then…

Yesterday I ran a team building day.  We started with an ice breaker, an exercise in listening.  Each person had to greet another person, introduce themselves and say what they had recently watched on TV, their partner would reciprocate and then they would both move on to find different partners.  Simple enough.

Someone in the room had a secret message.  This person would introduce themselves and then say

‘The pink flamingos fly south over the artic.’

A fairly distinctive message for a number of reasons.  Once this message was passed on (it couldn’t be repeated) the person would resort to the conversations about TV programs with their next partner.

We did this for about 5 minutes.  At the end, I asked the person with the secret message to identify themselves. They all knew there was a secret message and they had to pass it on so you would have hoped they were waiting for it.   There were two of them!  What was the message?

‘The crows fly up through the clouds.’

In light of this experience (which I am sure is not unique to our team) I would like to revise my explanation of how hearing works.

Sound waves travel through the air and are channeled into the ear canal by the external auricle.  The sound waved travel down the ear canal and cause the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to vibrate.  This in turn causes movement in the three auditory ossicles, the malleus, the incus and the stapes in the middle ear.  The base of the stapes is in contact with the oval window of the cochlea.  The movement of the stapes causes the oval window of the cochlea to move and this, in turn, causes the fluids inside the cochlea to move.  This movement is detected by hair cells inside the various compartments of the cochlea.  These cells generate signals which are taken by the auditory nerve to the brain.

These signals enter the brain at which point it makes up the message that it thinks you should be hearing and directs this to the parts of your brain that should have been paying attention.

Does that sound about right?


Akimbo – it’s not a phrase you often come across.  I was introduced to it in Peter Pan.  It’s used to describe the way the characters stands – arms akimbo.  It describes the action of standing with your hands on your hips with the elbows splayed outwards.


I was provided with a nice illustration of the pose a few weekends ago (it may well have been because the people involved were wishing they had never grown up, like Peter Pan!)


I was watching  a Scottish Touch Competition.  As training for the Under 18 Scottish touch rugby team they are taken to these competitions to play against adult teams.  You can maybe imagine the emotion of these middle aged players when they come face to face with the national youth team on the field.

This was the view I was provided with half way through the game.

You can see three players with arms akimbo and a fourth player with their hands on their knees.

Why are they standing like this?

They are knackered!

But why do we adopt this position when we are tired?

This is the body taking control and making it easier for us to breathe.  But how does this work?

It comes down to the action of breathing and kinetic chains.

We have a number of muscles that connect our arms to our body.  These are usually used for moving our arms around.  The pectoralis major and minor, the serratus anterior and the latissimus dorsi all connect our arms to parts of our thoracic cavity.  The end of the muscle connected to the ribs is usually held in place while the muscle contracts to move our upper limbs about. Our arms are free to move around, they are the end of an open chain.

When the body needs more air it makes us close that kinetic chain.  You put your hands on your knees, your hips or behind your head.  You close the chain by fixing your arms.

Now when those muscles contract the arms can’t move and so the other end of the muscle moves.  It pulls on the ribs and it aids with the expansion of the rib cage so that you can get more air into your body and recover.  These muscles are known as the accessory muscles of respiration.

Arms akimbo might be part of the power pose, you’re getting in more oxygen so that you can make you move but in a physical situation like this  it sends a message to your opponents that you are tired.