Contracture is a loss of mobility in a joint. There are many possible causes of contracture of a joint: illness, nerve damage, muscle atrophy, or problems with the cartilage or ligaments of the joint. We are going to investigate the case where problems in our ligaments cause contracture.
Everyday life can create microscopic tears in our ligaments. These small wounds are healed by the insertion of ligament tissue in between the torn edges. This function has been known for a long time; however, what was mysterious was if the body naturally lengthens ligaments due to their constant tearing and rebuilding, why then aren’t our ligaments extremely long? As Paul Grilley likes to ask, “Why don’t our knuckles drag on the ground when we walk?”
A researcher at the University of North Carolina, Professor Laurence Dahners, was investigating this question. What he discovered was a mechanism in which the body shrink-wraps our joints by removing materials from our ligaments. There are similar functions in many areas of our body; one part of the body creates materials (like the osteoblasts in our bones, which create bone tissue) and another part consumes or removes materials (like the osteoclasts, which dissolve bone). Health is usually the balance of these two functions.
An example of shrink-wrapping contracture is the classic “frozen shoulder syndrome.” Grandpa falls and breaks his arm, the bone is reset, and the arm rests in a sling for several weeks. When the time comes, the sling is removed, the bone has healed, but the shoulder is frozen. Movement there is not possible. What happened? While there are multiple causes of frozen shoulder syndrome, such as inflammation, this cause was the lack of use of the shoulder joint. The body took away materials no longer needed  so that when the time came to use the shoulder again, it couldn’t respond.
The treatment for contracture is not surprising for any student of yoga: mobilization. You can do this yourself through Yin Yoga techniques and stretches, or through mechanical means. In the latter case, devices such as the Continuous Passive Motion machine move the limb through the patient’s tolerable ranges of motion. This is exactly what we do in Yin Yoga we gently but persistently move the body through its tolerable ranges of motions and hold the body there. Eventually we regain or even expand the original range of motion of the joint and combat contracture.