The Ugly Truth About Scar Tissue

What Is Scar Tissue

We all know about the types of scars that form when you cut or burn yourself.  Scars look and act differently than the healthy skin that surrounds them, and usually, they’re just plain ugly.  Depending on the severity of the injury, a scar could be with you for the rest of your life.

Scar tissue can also form inside your body as a part of the normal healing process.  Whenever tendons or ligaments are injured, your body produces scar tissue to help heal the injury.  In fact, after the age of puberty, the only thing that your body can heal with is scar tissue.  And, it begins to form less than 24 hours after the injury.

Scar Tissue Causes Pain

Every joint in your body is held together by a joint capsule which is made up of ligaments.  These ligament capsules hold the shape of the joint and produce lubricating synovial fluid that protects your cartilage to ensure safe, pain-free movement.  The healthy ligaments that make up the capsules are strong and flexible because they are made up of long fibers that run parallel to one another and have a good supply of oxygen and nutrients.

Unlike healthy tissue, scar tissue forms in random, criss-crossing patterns.  It is not as flexible or as functional as the tissue that it is replacing.  It has poor circulation, which limits the supply of fresh oxygen and nutrients. Scar tissue is weak, which makes it prone to re-injury.

Scar tissue also is more sensitive to pain because it has more pain receptors than the original tissues, and it contracts (tightens up) when you sleep.  If you are achy and stiff when you wake up in the morning, or if your joints ache throughout the day, it’s because of all of the wear and tear that your body has endured over the course of your adult life has resulted in scar tissue building up inside of your joints.

Your Body Was Made to Move

Not only is the scar tissue itself sensitive to pain, when scar tissue prevents normal function of tissues and joints two things happen.

First, pain fibers are activated.  Pain is the way that your body tells your brain that something may be wrong. When you feel pain, you should take it seriously and try to determine what’s going on so that you can take the proper corrective action.

Second, your joints do not produce the synovial fluid needed to keep them moving and pain free.  The synovial fluid that is produced inside of your joints is 100 times more slippery than Teflon.  Its job is to lubricate the cartilage inside of your joints. In a properly functioning joint, the synovial fluid will provide a lifetime of protection for your cartilage. The signal for your body to produce more synovial fluid is movement.  If you’re not able to move because of scar tissue, your body will not produce the necessary synovial fluid.

When the joint is not properly lubricated, the surface area of the cartilage can break down and wear away. This allows the bones under the cartilage to rub together causing pain, swelling, and further loss of motion.  Over time, this can cause the joint to lose its normal shape. Eventually, the scar tissue can calcify to form osteoarthritis. (More on this in a future post.)

What to do about Scar Tissue

I teach all of my patients the importance of moving as soon as possible after a new injury as a way to combat the ugly effects of scar tissue.  No matter what, damaged ligaments are going to heal with scar tissue.  But, if you start moving less than 24 hours after the injury, that scar tissue will heal in longer, more flexible strands enabling the joint to keep its range of motion. And, even though it may not be quite as strong, if it’s still moving, it is going to produce the protective synovial fluid.

But what about all of that old, gnarly scar tissue that’s been building up inside your body for years?

It’s important to loosen up old scar tissue and get your joints moving again because we need movement to produce the protective synovial fluid.  If you don’t move, a vicious cycle begins – you stop moving because of pain, but because you’re not moving, the pain increases, so you move even less, but that makes the pain get worse…  And I haven’t even touched on the emotional toll that chronic pain and lack of movement take on your life.

There are things that we can do to help soften up old scar tissue, from massage and hydro therapy to manipulations and rehabilitation exercises.  However, in more than 25 years of practice, I’ve never seen anything have as big of an impact on scar tissue as High Intensity Laser Therapy (HILT).

High Intensity Laser Therapy

High Intensity Laser Therapy is an FDA-cleared treatment option that penetrates through bone, soft tissue, and muscle to deliver healing light energy to the cells of the body. HILT is the most effective therapy that I’ve seen for softening up old scar tissue.  What’s more, it can reduce pain, minimize swelling, and reset the chronic pain cycle while healing damaged tissue at the cellular level.  Learn more about HILT here.

Chronic pain doesn’t look good on anyone.  Addressing the ugliness that’s produced by scar tissue can a go a long way to getting your motion, and your life, back.

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Dr. Curt Draeger, DC, DACBOH, CCST is the treating doctor to Team USA’s Olympic decathletes, founder of Integrated Pain Solutions (formerly Gold Medal Motion), and co-developer of the latest generation of High Intensity Therapeutic Lasers.  His unique chronic pain treatment protocol provides lasting relief and healing to anyone suffering from chronic pain by combining High Intensity Laser Therapy with other manual therapies once reserved exclusively for professional athletes.