The Anatomical Dilemma

Turning Overwhelm Into Action

By Allison Denney
[The Rebel MT ]

Raise your hand along with me if you have ever done an online search for a pain you felt. It is nearly impossible not to. The ease of entering a couple of words on the keyboard—type “neck,” “stiff,” “can’t turn head,” click enter—opens a vault of information in front of you. Like a magic key to all the collective wisdom of the world, it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush to have all that access. Especially if you, like me, grew up when encyclopedias were our only option for learning at home and took up two whole shelves on the family bookcase.

Fitting all Google has to offer on two shelves is a comical thought. There is so much information out there that the idea of mashing it all into a set of books would be like trying to grab onto a black hole. The infinite enormity is quite literally too vast for our human capacity. Too many layers. Too many components. Too many dimensions.

We keep searching online, though. We keep hoping that the process of weeding through the swamps of data and research will give us resolve. Having access to this much knowledge must make us smarter, right? The answer to why my neck hurts must be in there somewhere.

The truth is (and I don’t think I need to convince anyone of this) that it is completely overwhelming. What begins as a search for answers leaves us with a pit in our stomach. We still don’t know why we hurt. We still don’t know how to make it stop. We still don’t understand.

Michael Pollan calls this “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in his book of the same name. Pollan examines the notion that humans—through technology and global access—have created an unlimited number of options for dinner. No longer are we limited to what is in season or what we can forage. We can have whatever we want, whenever we want. And the result is not good. The dilemma of what to choose offers no solutions. No simplicity. No peace.

Turning Knowledge Into Understanding

The process of learning bodywork can be equally as overwhelming. We learn in school, for example, that the neck has seven vertebrae, 26 muscles, six movements, and a handful of other anatomical parts that we swear we will learn more about later. Then, we learn about eight or nine dysfunctions that occur in this area. And, if we are lucky, about seven techniques we can apply and use once we have graduated and on our own.

Now, raise your hand if you have done an online search for “neck anatomy.” Or “how to work on the neck.” Or “what is really happening with chronic neck pain.” (Yup, me too.) We didn’t learn everything in school. And the magic key to all that knowledge is right there. So we pick it up. We use it . . . and we freak out about how much we really don’t know. We wonder how we are not paralyzing our clients with compression. We question who is correct in their approach—and also who is throwing meteors into a black hole with a blindfold on. I call this “The Anatomical Dilemma.”

Our current understanding of anatomy is shifting all the time, which means the list of questions keeps growing. Is it a pinched nerve or a connective tissue disorder? Is it a “crick” in the neck or an ancient family curse? Is “text neck” really a thing?

The competing views of “what works when” are enough to make your head spin, which will assuredly cause neck pain. Maybe, just maybe, we are searching in the wrong place. The deeper question is not what we know, but how we know. Knowing a fact and understanding a symptom are two very different starting points. Turning knowledge into understanding shifts the chaos into forward movement.

It seems humans are exceptionally good at figuring things out. We can categorize, classify, sort, and label until the stars dim in the sky. But we still can’t fully explain neck pain. Sometimes it causes headaches. Some neck pain causes numbness and tingling down the arm. Sometimes it has a specific onset. Sometimes it pops up unexpectedly. Sometimes it lasts a day. Sometimes it lasts an eternity. The variables are infinite, and so, it seems, is the knowledge.

We do, however, understand pain. We understand that things don’t always work all the time. And we understand that it is important to try.

Remember that you know things. You know enough things. You learn how those things operate with other things. Then, you start to understand. You start to see the human being and not just the parts. The lessons are endless. And the journey is a lifetime. So . . . have patience, breathe deep, pour yourself a cup of tea, and lie under the stars. You might just understand more than you think.


“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” —Malcolm Gladwell


Allison Denny is a certified massage therapist and certified YouTuber. You can find her massage tutorials at She is also passionate about creating products that are kind, simple, and productive for therapists to use in their practices. Her products, along with access to her blog and CE opportunities, can be found at