How SI joint dysfunction can affect the rest of your body

One of the craziest things about the SI joint is that even though it’s only meant to move a few millimeters, when those few millimeters of motion become restricted, it can really wreak havoc on the rest of your body.

Although this joint is meant to move a ton compared to other joints in the body (think of the hip socket, the shoulder, or the knee!) it still plays an important role in our movement chain.  It’s not something you would ever notice or think about… until it stops moving.

When there is an imbalance in the pelvis, and the two hip bones (ilia) are rotated forward or backward in relation to the base of the spine (the sacrum), it can throw off a lot of important factors in our posture, as well as alter our gate.

Upper Body

When our pelvis is off-kilter, the rest of our back can end up having to compensate for it.  Ultimately, our brain and our nervous system want our eyes to be level with the ground– it’s an important part of our balance system, and how we orient ourselves towards the world.

There is a reflex called the “righting reflex,” where our nervous system automatically tries to make our eyes level.  This means we can end up subtly bending at other areas of our back and neck so that our balance system is happy.

Of course, now our spine is out of its normal positioning in other areas as well, which in turn can cause neck and back pain.  Our muscles end up having to work harder than they’re supposed to, so they can go into a protective spasm.

These muscle spasms, in turn, can trigger all sorts of other symptoms, such as headache and TMJ, or temporomandibular joint disorder.

The TMJ thing might sound far-fetched, but I know because I’ve actually felt it happen to me.  On some of the days when my SI joints were the most off-kilter, I would wake up with a weird stiffness or pain, usually just on one side of my jaw.

And the funny thing would be that, often on those days, my chiropractor would actually ask me if I was having jaw pain.  It can have a lot to do with positioning and stiffness of the neck muscles, which ultimately affect the muscles that control the jaw.

Mid-Back

One of the most painful things I’d find, sometimes, is that when my SI joints were rotated out of place, I would have a lot of pain in my mid-back, around my shoulder blades.  I would go to do exercises to strengthen those mid-back muscles, which wouldn’t hurt on a different day, and barely able to do 3 repetitions when my SI joints were really off.

Lower-Back

When the SI joints are out of alignment, the muscles in the area can tighten up, pulling on the lumbar vertebrae (in other words, the vertebrae in the lower spine).  This can create a lot of pain and dysfunction in its own right (for more, you can check out this post).

Lower Body

When our hip bones, or ilia, are rotated forward or backward out of their normal position, this can affect the angle at which our legs hit the ground.

This can cause what is known as a functional short leg syndrome.  The word functional means that we don’t actually have one leg that’s shorter than the other, but instead, as a result of the way our bodies are functioning at a given moment in time, it’s as if we do.

I will elaborate more on how functional short leg syndrome happens in its own post, however in this post that’s more about symptoms, let’s go on:

When you have a functional short leg, it can create all sorts of other symptoms.

One of the biggest symptoms I have experienced is foot pain.  This is because, when motion is restricted all the way up in the pelvis, it still affects the range of motion of your legs.

When my SI joints were really stuck (which thankfully hasn’t happened in years) it would feel as though someone had tied some sort of a belt around my legs.  I couldn’t put one foot very far in front of the other.

As a result, I didn’t have much control over which part of my foot hit the ground first when I walked.  My feet would just kind of slam down awkwardly, and sometimes I’d land really hard on my forefoot, instead of landing on my heel.

I also experienced knee pain at times.

Our bodies were designed to move in a certain way, in what’s known as a kinetic chain, or movement chain.  Each part depends on another.

When you alter part of that chain (especially if you are significantly altering which part of your foot is hitting the ground when you walk) it can send all kinds of abnormal forces traveling up your leg.

This is why people with SIJ dysfunction can experience foot pain, knee pain, or even pain at the hip socket (which, thankfully, hasn’t happened to me).

Malalignment Syndrome

These are just some of the secondary symptoms that SI joint dysfunction can cause.

For more, you can look into physical therapist Vicki Sims’ work, particularly on something called “Malalignment Syndrome.”  This is a term that she, along with some other knowledgeable medical professionals who work with SI joint dysfunction, use to describe these secondary symptoms.

I have linked to a really great video from her, as well as taken some notes for you, in this post.  (I really recommend that you read my post, rather than going straight to her video, because the video can be a bit overwhelming).

Has SI joint dysfunction caused pain and other symptoms in other parts of your body?  

Feel free to chime in below, or message me (I always keep your information confidential)– I would like this post to be comprehensive.

Thank you!

16 thoughts on “How SI joint dysfunction can affect the rest of your body

  1. Tammie says:

    This is very helpful! I have such a long way to go. It’s been a year for me suffering with this and I am beyond frustrated with medical professionals. PT didn’t help. I just came to the conclusion that the chriopractor is making the Si joint worse. The SI joint injection was a big fail. Doctors don’t want to give you pain meds. So I’m stuck on my own. I did commit to losing 20 pounds which helped a little. I’m extremely disappointed it didn’t help as much as I thought it would. Back to the drawing board of getting more opinions. I will comment I came across a website on sacral belts. WHY hasn’t anyone talked about this before??

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    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Tammie, thanks for your comment! I’m sorry to hear about what you’re going through. And yes, I totally know what you mean about the lack of information. It took me *years* to learn everything I talk about on my blog. It’s pretty crazy how under-recognized this problem is.

      I agree, it sounds like you should look for additional opinions. The physical therapist who finally helped me with this was actually the fifth physical therapist I saw. You never know when things can finally fall into place… sometimes it just takes the one right person.

      Best of luck on your search!

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  2. Annie says:

    This describes me, feet to jaw, with dizziness from my neck just to add to the overall sense of imbalance 😦 I wish I’d understood what was happening after I fell 24 years ago instead of doing the rounds of people who didn’t see the larger picture until recently. I must get back to the muscle energy technique because it’s the only thing which really seemed to work. Thank you for your posts and blogs, they’re always hopeful!

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    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Annie, thanks so much for your kind comment! It means so much to me to know my writing is resonating with people. 🙂

      As someone who’s struggled to find information in the past five years, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been 24 years ago. I’m glad you are finding things that work for you– the muscle energy technique has definitely been life-saving for me!

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  3. Tammy Parish says:

    Hi, can si joint dysfunction cause your toes to spasm?? My jaw feels like it moves at times. I feel nerves moving in my teeth. My baby toe wants to separate from the others..it hurts so bad. Doctors are saying it’s all in my head. Yet, I go to therapy twice a week to unlock my si joints!! Any advice is appreciated. .

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    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Tammy,
      SI joint dysfunction can most certainly cause pain in other parts of your body (as you’ve just heard me say in this post!). It can throw your alignment off in a pretty major way, so the rest of your body has to compensate. I’ve had pain in all different parts of my body, when my SI joints were rotated out of place. Foot pain, knee pain, and yes, TMJ (jaw pain).

      However, it sounds to me as though there may be an additional component to what you’re experiencing. Especially when you talk about feeling nerves move in your teeth (there aren’t any nerves there that can move).

      It’s not that it’s in your head– I believe you. However, sometimes when the body goes through something really traumatic and stressful (such as SI joint dysfunction) the part of the nervous system that senses pain can become a little overactive. It’s as though it’s trying really hard to protect you, so it “turns up the volume” on pain signals, and can cause you to feel pain in places that don’t have an injury. So when you experience symptoms that doctors can’t find a cause for (such as the tooth pain)… it isn’t just in your head. Your nervous system really is sending your brain the message that that part of your body hurts.

      This can all be really hard to sort out, but if you are able to find a good physical therapist who understands how this type of chronic pain works (it’s called central sensitization) they should be able to help you navigate a way through your symptoms. Exercising the parts of your body that don’t hurt is a really great way to start.

      I have a lot of experience with this type of pain myself– I actually developed it as a result of a previous injury, long before I developed SI joint dysfunction. That’s actually what my other blog, Sunlight in Winter, is about. There are a few posts over there you may want to check out:

      https://sunlightinwinter.com/2012/12/13/chronic-pain-nervous-system/
      https://sunlightinwinter.com/2016/01/26/what-is-central-sensitization/
      https://sunlightinwinter.com/2013/02/08/understanding-pain-as-an-overprotective-friend/

      Hope this helps!

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  4. Ruth Ziegler says:

    Hello: I am a ballet and dancer wellness teacher. I recently had a very significant SI joint “incident” and I am totally frustrated. I was FINE. I dance myself 5 days a week (90 minute ballet classes) as well as do a lot of cross training. I have had two rounds of hip replacements. The first set was done in 2005 and the implants were defective and placed incorrectly. The second set (2011) were placed correctly and I have no movement restrictions. I was teaching a private lesson when quite suddenly I felt a shift in my low back (painless) and then my left leg felt terrible. That was a month ago. I still cannot dance, can hardly teach and am in pain 24/7. I was evaluated by my primary physician’s PA and she told me most likely this happened due to my inactivity and general weakness, along with most likely poor posture. That most definitely is not me.

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    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Ruth, I’m so sorry to hear that. It definitely doesn’t sound as though the PA’s diagnosis is taking your entire situation into account. It could be that she’s evaluating you based on how you appear now, after a month of inactivity, versus how you were at the time of your injury.

      However, I’d also be pretty surprised if a PA working in primary care (or even a primary care physician herself) who was well-versed in SI joint dysfunction. My own PCP doesn’t know anything about it… it isn’t necessarily something that would be included in their training.

      But I would urge you to keep going, and not give up hope! There is a type of specialist you could see called a physiatrist, and their training is more likely to include SI joint dysfunction. (Although still, not all of them will be familiar with it). Here’s a post I wrote on this specialty: https://sijointsaga.com/2017/09/29/sacroiliac-joint-doctor/

      I also think that finding the right physical therapist could make a world of difference for you as well. While physicians are (usually) great at diagnosing and providing medications and/or injections for pain relief, your best bet long term will likely be to have someone gently realign the joint and help you build up muscle strength in the area. (I know muscle weakness was certainly not part of your original problem, but if you’ve injured the joint/strained the ligaments, strengthening will be an important part of your recovery).

      I hope this helps! Feel free to let me know if you have any questions!

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  5. Christy says:

    Hi Christy!!! I’m Christy also! Lol. Your post has confirmed a lot of what I could feel happening to me right now. I have been in several accidents in my 40 years & have scoliosis & after an accident in 2010 when 2 years of pain killers didn’t work I stopped them cold turkey and felt with my Fibromyalgia diagnosis as best I could without the meds. The fibro was diagnosed when my specific “Spine Pain Management” doctor couldnt understand how I was STILL in pain a year after the accident. For the record I went to the Orthopedic Spine Care of Long Island. Long story short I am now doubting the fibro diagnosis as I have found articles of present day doctors comparing accident injuries back in the early days of automobiles to present. I became A-Symptomatic with my back injuries initial April of 2017…..since then I have had 1 discetomy on my L3/4 and currently awaiting injections for SI inflammation………that foot thing, I can relate. At times I feel like my foot disappeared from the ankle down and I’m peg legged…..but o happens when the front of my foot is supposed to support my weight walking and step step step to prevent from falling. This past week it happened 2 BOTH legs walking down the stairs and ended up catching myself but now my arm hurts. I have been “Swollen” in the Dimples of Venus since the day of my last accident. Now that my back pain is gone this SI Inflammation is horrible and so much more life hindering that I could of ever imagined. Thanks for sharing, always comforting to know someone else has or is feeling the same!!! 💗

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    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi there Christy 🙂 So sorry to hear all this has happened… but I’m so glad my blog has been helpful! Yes, that peg-legged feeling definitely sounds like it could be coming from the SI joint. I really hope the injections help! Wishing you the best of luck as you continue on your journey!

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    • Sunlight in Winter says:

      Hi Georgena, this would be something that only a doctor could evaluate on a case-by-case basis. However, in my personal experience, as well as all of the research I’ve done for this blog, that would not be typical of SI joint dysfunction. Generally, when nerves are affected, we think about the spine itself, where the nerves exit the spinal cord. There aren’t any major nerves that run through the SI joints, in the way you might be picturing.

      However, if you have concerns, I strongly urge you to follow up with a doctor! A neurologist can evaluate your nerve function, and there is a type of specialist called a physiatrist, who specializes in musculoskeletal pain. They can also help evaluate exactly what’s going on in your SI joints. Hope this helps!

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  6. Sheila says:

    So very glad I’ve found this blog. I’ve been experiencing SI joint pain since I had a total knee replacement in Feb. Like has already been said, getting up from laying or sitting position is extremely painful. Lower back pain & pain going down the leg is also there. I’m waiting to have the 2nd knee done and hoping that will “balance” me out and make it go away. I’m currently seeing an Osteopath and Physical Therapist which helps for a few days after each appointment, but no long term relief has been found – yet. I’m being optimistic that I will get there

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    • Sunlight in Winter says:

      Hi Sheila, I think it’s actually a great sign that you’ve already been able to find treatments that give you relief! If you feel short term pain relief, that’s a good indication that the osteopath and PT are at least identifying your problem correctly (some people try these treatments and receive no relief at all!).

      I think you are right that, if you’ve been recovering from one surgery, while still dealing with another knee that needs to be replaced, it makes sense that your lower back and SI joints would be affected. Not only will your gait be affected, but you will (unfortunately) have lost muscle strength overall as you’ve been recovering. Even if you don’t notice a loss in strength yourself, I know from personal experience that the loss of strength from another injuuy can affect the SIJ’s. (I actually developed SIJ dysfunction while recovering from a knee injury myself).

      However, I share your optimism that you will get better! It will be really important to build your strength back up overall, and particularly in the muscles of your lower back and core. Once you’re able to walk normally without pain in your knees, this will be a huge relief for your SI joints.

      As you may know from my blog, I’m a huge fan of aquatic physical therapy, which you may find is a great option for you. Hopefully once both knees are healed, you’ll find you’re much better able to exercise and get moving again!

      Wishing you the best of luck as you heal!

      Like

  7. Jane Fogarty says:

    I am rather a complex case as in the last two years I have had a Sacroilliac fusion and a hip replacement on the right side. I am only five weeks since my hip surgery and keep improving daily but I am finding my leg shakes when I walk down hill. It feels like it doesn’t have the strength to hold me up. I really don’t understand this and I am not sure if it is a hip symptom or a Sacroilliac joint instability symptom. It’s really only going down hill , up hill is ok.
    I am worried!!?

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    • Sunlight in Winter says:

      Hi Jane, you should definitely follow up with your surgeon about this! He or she will most likely want to evaluate you to make sure everything is in order.

      However, I do want to reassure you that five weeks is not a long time. Your body does need to acclimate to the fact that you’ve had surgery and that your hip works differently now. It’s completely possible– and, I think, likely– that your doctor will say nothing is wrong. It will take a while for you to adjust and build up the muscle strength to do the things you need to do.

      Your nervous system may also, at times, give you the sensation of muscle weakness in order to protect the joint. It doesn’t have to mean that something is “wrong.” It’s just that your nervous system knows you’ve gone through a big change, and it’s trying to make sure you take things slowly.

      So again– I never want anyone to take the things I say in place of medical advice. Please do follow up with your doctor. But I hope this helps to give you some peace of mind in the meantime 🙂

      Like

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