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Health Language

Health Language Matters! We can do better!

As health professionals we have privilege and responsibility to educate people and influence the way they think about their bodies, pain and injuries. We can affect their hope, set their expectations and influence their motivation. People form beliefs based on the words that we use and the messages that we send with certain types of language.

However, we are not solely responsible. We are also up against messages in the media, cultural beliefs and inherited ideas from our peers and families. This makes the language health professions use even more important.

Examples of how language matters

‘Wear and tear’

You may hear the term “wear and tear” being thrown around when talking about changes in our body and joints. There can be some negative connotation with this term as it may leave people feeling that they mustn’t overuse their bodies, but rather that they must be preserved. For example, ‘The more we use it, the more we wear it out’, like an old favourite t-shirt. This kind of thinking is often heard with statements such as “running wears out your knees”. Current research suggests this is not the case. In fact, keeping your body moving and strong helps most injuries when done in the correct manner. We should be replacing the term “wear and tear” with the term “normal age related changes” as this can make a world of difference.

‘Avoid bending’

Sadly we still see some people that have been told to avoid certain movements without explanation. For example, “You should avoid bending” is very different to “you should limit movements that bring on your intense pain for the next few days, in favour of more comfortable movement and exercise”. In this case, someone may be left with the belief that bending is inherently “bad” when in fact it is a normal function of the spine. One sentence can have a powerful effect.

‘Lazy Glutes’

Have you ever been told you have lazy glutes? Your gluteal muscles will work if you do exercises that utilise them. They are no more self motivated than any other muscle in your body and sadly if you just sit on them all day they aren’t likely to get stronger. Your glutes are not defective in any way for not being strong without the input of exercise!

‘Slipped Disc’

Thankfully some terms seem to be leaving our vernacular. “Slipped a disc” is a very outdated term which makes it sound like the discs of our spine can simply fall or slip out. In fact, our spines are far more robust than this! There is no need to fear movement, but rather movement and exercise are key for people with painful disc bulges or disc degeneration. Many people that have disc bulges and degeneration may have no pain at all and these are considered to be part of normal age related changes.

Let’s get away from the belief that our bodies are fragile, broken vessels and encourage resilience. It’s normal to have pain or injury at points in our lives. We need to use our words as tools of education to foster healthy healing and beliefs that instill people with confidence and not fear.

-Sarah

References

Dhillon J, Kraeutler MJ, Belk JW, Scillia AJ, McCarty EC, Ansah-Twum JK, McCulloch PC. Effects
of Running on the Development of Knee Osteoarthritis: An Updated Systematic Review at
Short-Term Follow-up. Orthop J Sports Med. 2023 Mar 1;11(3):23259671231152900. doi:
10.1177/23259671231152900. PMID: 36875337; PMCID: PMC9983113.
W. Brinjikji, P.H. Luetmer, B. Comstock, B.W. Bresnahan, L.E. Chen, R.A. Deyo, S. Halabi, J.A.
Turner, A.L. Avins, K. James, J.T. Wald, D.F. Kallmes and J.G. Jarvik. Systematic Literature
Review of Imaging Features of Spinal Degeneration in Asymptomatic Populations. American
Journal of Neuroradiology April 2015, 36 (4) 811-816; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3174/ajnr.A4173

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